What to Do When Two Adults Disagree on Leading a Child

I recently heard from a mother, who shared an all-too familiar scenario:

“My son is 7 and I have been separated from his father since he was 3. Both of us have new partners who get along with quite well with each other. Recently our son behaved defiantly and I shouted at him to correct him, only to find out he’s being picked on at school. My former spouse and I disagree on the proper response. The problem I have is that our son’s time is split between me and his dad—his dad has him Thursday and Friday; I have him Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday night. And we alternate Saturday and Sundays. I really feel this is having a negative effect on all of us. I am open to learning how to better handle this situation, and even learning about myself through it. Can you help?

We often hear similar accounts from readers:

  • I am a teacher and the parent of one of my students disagrees with what I’ve chosen to do in class, believing her child is special.
  • I am divorced and my former spouse and I share the kids. The problem is, we disagree on how to best reward and discipline our children.
  • I am a parent and I don’t like the way my son’s coach treats him. I find myself stepping in to help, but it seems to make things worse.

“It’s normal for one parent to be more strict and the other to be laissez-faire, since they come from different family backgrounds,” says Gerry Turpin, who’s been a parent educator with Parentaide Plus in Montreal for more than three decades.

Over the years, however, Gerry Turpin has seen a change in how couples deal with their differing approaches. Under duress, he says, today’s couples “tend to latch onto parenting as one of their tools for the war.”

Seven Steps to Take When Two Adults Disagree:

photo credit: Instant Vantage “Disagreement” via photopin (license)

1. Take some time and talk about your parenting leadership styles.

Often, couples don’t talk over details of how they will parent a child before getting married. After the birth, parenting styles surface and clash. Take the time (for the sake of your young) to talk over how you were raised, what worked and didn’t work. Then, explore how to balance empathy with discipline.

2. Show respect for your partner when the kids are present.

The most difficult reality kids face is when they see two adults they love disagree, and they feel they have to take sides. Young people should not be put in this situation. Even when you vehemently differ with your partner, colleague or spouse, displaying civil respect for them actually earns respect for you.

3. Explain your leadership decisions when possible.

Once kids reach age nine or ten, they can understand logic. I tried to explain to my children and my students why I did what I did and the rationale behind it. That way, when other leaders (adults) handle things differently, at least they’ll know why I did what I did. This leadership style cultivates trust between you and your young.

4. Attend outside parenting events or see a counselor as a couple.

According to psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan, from U.C. Berkeley, parents who attend a couple’s group for several months before or after their first child is born are more likely to maintain satisfaction over the years. This may not be possible, but even couples at odds with each other can bear it for the child’s sake.

5. Determine the guiding values you agree on and practice them.

You might call this the 101% Principle. Find the one percent you can agree on and give it 100 percent of your attention for a while. With your spouse (or ex-spouse), acknowledge your differences but zero in on the principles you have in harmony and practice those principles with your kids regularly. Children need congruency.

6. Be consistent.

I believe it matters less how strict or lenient you are with your kids (or students). What matters more is how consistent you are over the years. Kids can get used to strict rules (even if they don’t like them) when caring adults remain steady and offer clear guidelines. This actually creates a secure environment. Even if your partner is unpredictable as they lead, you’ll be seen as reliable.

7. Remember these three buckets.

This important metaphor liberates me as a leader. I believe every experience that happens to me falls into one of three buckets:

  1. It is in my control. (I must take responsibility for the situation.)
  2. It is out of my control. (I must trust the process I am in.)
  3. It is within my influence. (I must act wisely with the parties involved.)

Angst arises when I place situations in the wrong bucket. I start blaming others when I need to be assuming responsibility. I start controlling situations when I am really not in control. I struggle with trust issues when it is unnecessary.

I hope this sparks some good thinking and conversation for you.

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What to Do When Two Adults Disagree on Leading a Child