The Hammer and the Marshmallow: When Parents Disagree on Discipline
Difficult parenting moments are challenging for everyone, but when you and your partner disagree on how to manage them, it can make a bad situation worse. Knowing something about your own (and your partner’s) discipline style will help you navigate these everyday challenges more effectively.
The See-Saw of Parenting Styles
Are you a strict “my way or the highway” type of parent? Or are you a lenient “walk all over me” type of parent? Nobody really knows her own discipline preferences until faced with a complete meltdown in the middle of the grocery store. Do you buy the desired candy bar? Or do you chastise your child for behaving like a “baby” and take away a toy or a privilege? And are there effective middle-ground solutions for everyday parenting challenges?
Luckily, there are. But it takes focus, commitment, and sheer will to find a healthy balance of discipline techniques for your family. Start with taking a look at how you yourself were raised. Often, we as parents, mimic the discipline tools received in our own childhoods because that’s what we know. If both parents experienced similar parenting strategies, they tend to be more aligned in their discipline styles. But if one parent grew up in a strict environment and the other grew up in a freewheeling environment, the discipline choices for their own children may clash.
Think about parent discipline as a see-saw. On one end is the authoritarian parent. Tools include yelling, threatening, punitive time-outs, and no room for dialogue or debate. A favorite phrase is, “Do it because I said so.” On the other end, usually to balance out the authoritarian parent, is the permissive parent. Tools include wishing, pleading, hoping, and very few consequences. A favorite phrase is, “Of course, sweetie, you can have whatever you want.”
Before you place yourself confidently on one end of the see-saw or the other, remember this important point: you will find yourself on both ends of this see-saw many, many times in your parenting career, sometimes within the same conversation!
Does this sound familiar?
“Honey, please put your shoes on.”
“Honey, I wish you would put your shoes on so we can leave.”
“Put your shoes on.”
“I SAID GET YOUR SHOES ON RIGHT NOW!!”
“SHOES ON OR WE DON’T GO TO THE PARK.”
“FINE! Don’t wear shoes! But if you step on a stone, don’t come crying to me!”
This is a good example of an adult struggling to control the behavior of a young child who really doesn’t want to put her shoes on, probably for a variety of valid (in the child’s mind) reasons. If you put yourself in the child’s “shoes,” this conversation is quite unpredictable and somewhat alarming. First, mom or dad is gentle, then firm, then yelling in all caps, and finally, withdrawn and angry. The parent may end up drained and frustrated while the child may end up confused and anxious.
A Collaborative and Positive Discipline Approach
To find a more collaborative parenting discipline style, we have to scootch over to the middle of the see-saw and attempt to balance our needs with our child’s needs.
Effective, positive guidance doesn’t mean that you must abandon all limits. It does mean you set clear and consistent limits, and offer to collaborate and problem-solve together to find a solution that supports your child’s learning and honors the parental request. This definitely requires some work.
Authentic connection means both the parents and child have to be willing to cooperate and listen. And since children are sponges who pick up everything parents do and say, this two-way respectful communication must be modeled in the couple relationship as well.
Finding Common Ground with Your Partner
Disagreements in parenting styles are inevitable because you are not the same person as your partner. You both have a right to parent individually and most parents simply need a safe and supported way to talk about their differences of opinion.
One useful strategy based on the work of Dr. Ross Greene is to use the “choosing battles baskets.” The idea is that you can put any child/parent conflict into one of three baskets:
Basket A (the smallest) is reserved for limits that are non-negotiable, usually around safety.
Basket B is the negotiating basket, which may change based on the child’s developmental capabilities. For example, you didn’t used to let your child stand on a stool and help stir the soup, but once the child is older, you allow them to help out in the kitchen.
Basket C (the largest) is reserved for low-stakes child battles like which color shirt they want to wear.
I’ve found that parent disagreements become more manageable when framed in this way. For example, a parent can say to the other, “It seems you are putting the shoe battle in Basket A. I might put it in basket C—can you tell me why this belongs in a different basket?” It’s a little nicer than saying, “Why are you yelling about the shoes? You ALWAYS yell at the children about everything!”
If you aren’t sure whether you should set a limit or not in any given situation and you are weighing the pros and cons of how to manage a particular conflict with your child, you are in the right place. The middle of the see-saw is a balancing act between limit-setting and power-sharing. It’s not easy to do, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
If arguments are taking a toll in your household, contact the parenting experts at Parents Place for some support. We regularly help couples work out their parenting differences and help you discover the most effective approaches to discipline. Schedule a consultation (in-person or via phone/web) today!
Heidi Emberling, MA, is a parent educator and child development specialist at Parents Place on the Peninsula.