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.
Working Together on Discipline
It’s not surprising that parents have differing views on the best way to discipline their children. Working out those differences requires clarity and perspective. Safety issues (You have to hold an adult’s hand when you’re walking on the sidewalk) should be the first consideration. They also require the greatest amount of agreement from both parents.
Other matters can usually be resolved by compromise or agreeing on which parent will set the rules about particular issues. Even so, forming a united front on discipline is often more easily said than done. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Be prepared for behavioral problems. Remember that many changes in children’s behaviors are linked to their stage of normal development. It should come as no surprise that your toddler becomes defiant or your preschooler has an occasional temper tantrum. Talk ahead of time about how each of you would handle these predictable situations. That way you’ll have fewer conflicts when they occur.
- Don’t be trapped by your past. That includes both your own childhood and the style of discipline you may have used in an earlier marriage. Look for ways to explore, with your spouse, your unquestioned assumptions about disciplining children. One good way to do that is to take a parenting class together. That does two things: It helps you realize how differently other people respond to the same situations you face as parents, and it gives you and your spouse a common base of information from which to develop your shared approaches to discipline.