One parent is easy-going, the other, a disciplinarian. One is strict about money and the other has a relaxed attitude. How do parents negotiate their differences and make sure their kids don’t take a “divide and conquer” approach?
My 5-year-old daughter wants to be a lawyer when she grows up; she just doesn’t know it yet. Astute at identifying gaps and contradictions in domestic policy her opening argument usually begins with “But Daddy lets me do it”.
She rarely accepts defeat and instead would take her flagging case to a higher power: the other parent. Usually all appeals are denied. My husband and I have realised that we’re less likely to be conquered as a united front, even against such a formidable opponent.
From an early age children develop the expert ability to decipher which parent is more malleable. Or more tired. Our parenting approaches are rooted in the premise that we want the best for our children.
However, what is “best” or “right” is rather subjective and might be open to the other parent’s interpretation. It is not uncommon for parents to differ in their strategies in dealing with their kids. While diversity does not automatically signal conflict, parents who differ radically in their parenting styles run the risk of sending confusing messages to their kids about what is appropriate and what isn’t.
Lisa and Jonathan's story
As a former ballet dancer, Lisa Lazarus, 49, understands that cuts and bruises are part of life and actively encourages her children Michael, 8, and Alex, 12, to get physical and ride their bikes.
However, her husband, Jonathan Hoffman, 50, a GP in private practice, is slightly more cautious, constantly concerned that the kids may get hurt.
“I sometimes feel that this inhibits the children’s physical ability to explore and that they become anxious because of his anxiety,” Lisa says. “From time to time we have to sit down and talk about this because the kids get very confused when I say they can go off on their bikes and he says they can’t.”
The importance of non-ambiguous guidelines for behaviour
Young children in particular need clear and non-ambiguous guidelines for behaviour. It is important for parents with different parenting styles to work through their differences and negotiate them in the context of their relationship with each other as well and their children. It is common for some degree of competitiveness to affect even the healthiest of parental relationships and children become very good at exploiting this.
“It is important to be aware that all children will try to manipulate a situation to their advantage at some time or another and this does not mean that the child is bad,” says Michele Carelse, a clinical psychologist in private practice and director of Feelgood Health. “Manipulative behaviour is really a sign that the child is confused and asking for boundaries.”
Not only do children need clear boundaries, but they also have a need to test these from time to time. Sometimes this results in the more lenient parents having to deal with behaviour which is aimed at finding out exactly where the boundaries lie.
“I often try and enforce rules around not buying toys or sweets when we go out,” Lisa says. “I try to introduce healthy eating habits, especially as Michael loves sweets and can pick up extra weight quickly. But despite talking to Jonathan about it, he will go out with the kids and they will come back with a chocolate, or ice-cream or some biscuits!”
Jonathan’s approach, he says, is a reaction to his own childhood, where his parents were tough on him. “I don’t want the spirit knocked out of our kids,” Jonathan says. As a result, Lisa believes Jonathan tends to be somewhat lazy in the discipline department.
Finding common ground and balance
Different parenting styles do not necessarily have to be confusing to children provided the parents are able to cope with them and find common ground in which to parent their children and deal with the basic rules of the household.
“For example, while one parent may allow a child to decide when to do homework and the other may prefer a set time, the principle that homework must be done is important,” Carelse asserts. “Similarly if having a tidy bedroom is important to one parent but not to the other, there needs to be acknowledgement by both parents that children should respect and listen to the parent who requests that the room be tidied.”
Although Lisa and Jonathan disagree on certain issues, they generally believe that their parenting strategies balance each other out. “Lisa sets the boundaries which are important for the kids,” Jonathan says. “We bring different components to the parenting role. Lisa brings imagination and creativity whereas I’m practical and mathematical.”
Children are better able to develop tools to solve problems if they witness a healthy managing of the different approaches by their parents.
Gail and Leslie's story
Gail and Leslie Forsman are united in their love and concern for their kids Bruce, 12, and Glenn, 15, even though their approaches to dealing with certain aspects of parenting clearly differ.
“My approach in general is nurturing, flexible and accommodating, with fewer rules,” says Gail, 43, an HR consultant. “I am less rigid around bedtimes and structure, which makes things chaotic at times. Leslie feels that I spoil the children and spend far too much money on extravagant things. This sometimes creates tensions.”
Leslie, a 46-year-old business development manager, by contrast grew up in a very strict household. “I am structured and strict with regards to discipline and rules,” he says. “Gail is more relaxed and lenient. Sometimes she is too soft and seen as easy to persuade.”
Clear boundaries and clear consequences
Parents who provide clear boundaries tend to be clear about the consequences of going outside these boundaries.
However, children should not fear their parents but rather be made aware of the consequences for inappropriate behaviour. In this way they are able to regulate their behaviour accordingly.
More important is the fact that the ultimate goal of parenting is to facilitate the development of an internal locus of control where children grow into adults with internalised values and principles that govern their behaviour.
This is in contrast to an external locus of control where the fear of getting caught and punished is what influences their decisions and regulates behaviour.
It is clear that Gail and Leslie hold differing opinions on what constitutes a parent/child relationship and have noticed that this can be is confusing for their kids, who easily manipulate the situation. Whereas Gail sees the relationship as essentially an engaging one, the adult, according to Leslie, should play a powerful/dominant role.
Their views in the past on punishment also differed with Leslie supportive of spanking and Gail not. The couple realised that their own experiences as children influenced their parenting styles. “My parents were supportive, nurturing, engaging and communicative,” Gail recalls. ”In essence our styles differ due to a combination of personality and the way we engaged with our parents during our childhoods.”
Being a role model
During the formative years our parents are our primary role models and play a critical role in our emotional development as well as in how we relate to others. “Those who have had loving close relationships with their parents are generally able to naturally adopt parenting strategies that are similar to what they experienced as children,” Carelse says. “People who have had difficult relationships with their own parents often need to work hard to break dysfunctional parenting patterns and consciously develop new ways of parenting.”
Gentle, firm approach
It is also imperative that parents not be dogmatic in their approaches and see the positive aspects in each other’s way of parenting. “I will allow debate and perhaps a bit of indecision, whereas their father is firm and clear on decisions that have to be made,” Gail states. “But sometime a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is easier for a child to deal with.”
And whilst Leslie believes Gail to be too soft on their kids, he appreciates the positive impact this has on their kids. “Gail’s parents encouraged debate and discussion regarding all aspects of family life, which she encourages in our boys,” he says. When parents differ on a particular issue it is necessary for them to present a united front or children may take advantage of the gap in consistency.
Unless the situation is abusive, parents need to be supportive of each other in front of the children rather than fighting against each other. Parents who openly disagree with each other and undermine each other in disciplinary issues create an uncomfortable atmosphere for the children. This can open the door for manipulation and insecurity in the home.
“It is important for parents with different parenting styles to communicate and work through their differences. They have to negotiate them in the context of their relationship with each other as well as with their children,” Carelse asserts.“This process needs to happen apart from the children in order to avoid confusion, conflict and the development of manipulative behaviour by children.”
About the writer:
Lisa-Anne Julien is a freelance writer and consultant on gender-related issues. She is Mom to Khaiya-Lee, 5, and Noah, 18 months, and in constant negotiations with them both. The writer’s motto is “to discipline with love”.
Feelgood Health - www.feelgoodhealth.co.za