When Parents Disagree on Discipline
Any child who has spilled a glass of milk or tried to negotiate a later bedtime is aware of the subtle differences in her parents’ styles of discipline. One parent is often a bit quicker to yell or to forgive. One may be more sensitive to appearances and propriety, while the other may focus on results. The blending of those two styles forms the family’s approach to raising children.
But there are some families in which the parents’ beliefs about changing children’s behavior are so different that their attempts at discipline become more of a problem than a solution. A child whose mother is strict but whose father is a consistent pushover, for example, receives confusing information about what’s expected.
Such fundamental disagreements can lead to difficulties that go far beyond the consequences of not picking up toys after playing with them. Studies by Dr. James H. Bray at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have found that parents who have significantly different child-rearing styles are more likely to have children with behavior problems than families who have similar styles.
Toddlers and preschoolers naturally test the limits of what’s acceptable in their behavior. It’s one of the ways that they figure out how the world works. While those limits may be temporarily frustrating to them, they are ultimately reassuring because they are predictable. Young children need limits and thrive on their predictability.
A parent who gives in to his children’s every demand in the hope of satisfying them almost always finds that the opposite happens: Instead of letting up, the children continue to push for more and more, looking for a sign of how much is too much.
A similar thing happens if the parents cannot decide how to discipline and set limits on their children. It’s healthy for children to see how their parents reach a compromise or settle a disagreement if it’s done peacefully and effectively. But if the parents can’t reach an agreement, the children’s behavior often gets worse as they search for the reassurance of stable boundaries to their lives.
In those situations, the main issue of using discipline to teach children appropriate behavior gets lost in the battles between parents for an illusion of control. The children become confused and respond by continuing to act out, both to assert their own power and to figure out which rules are really important.