When Parents Disagree on How to Raise Their Child
This is one of the most challenging issues that emerges during the question and answer segment in my parent conferences.
Recently, I had a dad ask what he should do when his teenage daughter failed to obey curfew times three weeks in a row. As he explained further, the issue was really about the fact that his wife felt their daughter always had a good excuse for her tardiness. Ah, now that was the root of the issue. Mom was empathetic toward her “little girl” and became the “good cop”—while Dad was viewed as the “bad cop.” Obviously, the daughter began learning how to play Mom against Dad. She diverted the struggle away from her conduct and made it between the parents.
This happens far too frequently.
Parents often wonder what to do when they and their spouse disagree on how to handle their children regarding their discipline, punishment, chores, bedtime, screen time, weekly allowance, substance abuse, laziness, choice of friends—you name it. This issue has become even more pronounced in our lifetime as parenting styles are more eclectic than ever and experts vary on their parenting advice. Today, I’m not going to give you any parenting advice. What I plan to do is help you lead your kids well when you and your spouse (your partner and fellow leader) are at odds as to how to lead. I actually don’t believe the most important issue is how strict we are, but how congruent and consistent we are as we lead our kids.
Action Steps to Consider:
1. Start from where you do agree.
When disagreements arise, it’s easy to take sides and become adversarial. What if you began from the foundation of what you do agree on? Perhaps, it’s that you both love your children; that you want them to succeed in school; that you want them to find their passion and gifts; that you want them to have peace of mind. Starting here, you’ll be in a clearer frame of mind to determine how to handle the issue at hand.
2. Remind each other of the outcome you’re shooting for.
When my wife, Pam, and I disagreed on an issue, it was always helpful to step back and remember our most important goals for our kids. We wanted our kids to be a positive influence on friends and neighbors; we wanted them to be responsible for their decisions and lives; we wanted them to cultivate healthy relationships and people skills, etc. Seeing the big picture always helps me in a moment of decision.
3. Check your motives.
I like a good debate. So when there’s a disagreement, I have the potential to focus on winning the argument instead of making the best decision. Before conflict surfaces, see if both of you can agree upon a signal for a “motive check.” Be sure you don’t make the issue winning the argument. Get alone and help each other filter through unhealthy motivations. Agree that the best idea wins, regardless of who has it.
4. Decide what hill is worth dying on.
I learned a lesson years ago: the further out I can see, the better decision I will make as a parent for my children. Disagreements will linger unless you decide what’s most important and what’s least important for your family. Choose your battles. We chose five items that were vital for our kids as they entered adulthood. All other issues were secondary, and peace was restored to our home. See number five below.
5. Create a list of your most important family values and stick to them.
Years ago, I led our family in the construction of a list of values. My wife and I came up with five words that became guiding principles for our home. We even let our children weigh in, (once we put them in pencil) which gave them ownership too. This list became our compass for making decisions and offering discipline. When parents disagree, they can return to these values and see if they lend any clarity.
6. Keep their temperaments in mind.
Like most families with multiple children, our kids had very different personalities as they were growing up. They still do. Our leadership was most effective when we remembered their individual make up—both to empower and discipline them accordingly. Our daughter was always confident; our son was hard on himself. As parents, Pam and I would remind each other of their hardwiring and tried to never break their spirit.
7. Seek out a counselor or an objective person for accountability.
If you’ve tried the first six steps and are still at odds, why not see a reputable counselor to bounce the issue off of them? Or, why not grab another couple who’s also on the parenting journey and ask them for their opinions? Sometimes objectivity comes quicker when we have an arbitrator take a look. (Proceed with caution, however: this can turn others into pseudo-attorneys and further divide you as parents.)
8. Evaluate to see if the answer is in the middle.
Kids have a better chance to grow into healthy adulthood if they’re led by “velvet-covered bricks.” (This is one of our Habitudes.) Effective leadership always involves a velvet side (acceptance, belief, forgiveness, attentiveness) and a brick side (standards that challenge kids to become their very best). They need leaders who are both responsive and demanding. Spouses often play one of these roles more naturally. In disputes, find a medium ground somewhere between strict and loose.
9. Present a united front.
Don’t let your children play you against each other. As you direct or offer a response to your kid’s inappropriate behavior, be sure you both are congruent in your messaging. Be clear and be united. Nothing takes the place of consistency and congruency when it comes to leading our kids. This gives them security. We owe it to them to lead and love them well, even when we see things differently.
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