General Parenting Issues — 06 November 2005
When parents disagree about childrearing

The most effective parenting style includes a negotiated position presented to the children by either parent as “our way”. When parents openly disagree about what is best for the children, several potentially harmful results may occur.

Children may become confused and frightened due to lack of clarity in parental guidance, they may become manipulative and ill prepared for respecting and managing authority in their adult life, they may lose respect for both parents and/or develop poor future parenting skills.

When parents provide clear and consistent guidance about what the youngsters are expected or not expected to do, children tend to thrive. The boundaries, values and reasons for learned conduct are essential to healthy development. Even when youngsters rebel, they are best off knowing what they are rejecting and the parental response they can anticipate.

Children, who confront solid parental guidelines of disapproved of or welcomed behavior, grow up feeling secure, supported and safe. They do not need to figure out life’s lessons by themselves, which is confusing and frightening to them. They have a framework within which to operate to gain approval, support and love. They also know what conduct will lead to negative consequences and can learn to avoid this type of behavior.

When parents disagree in front of the children, or clearly have opposing styles, the youngsters are left to make their own decisions as to which parent’s ways they will follow. It splinters the generational allegiance that is necessary for health. Siblings should join with each other to present their case to their parents, and the seniors should also stand united in their approach. When children learn that they can get their way with one parent, they develop a manipulative approach to authority. The child may also think that there are no absolutes in conduct just variations of opinions and approaches. Learning to get their way by appealing to the more permissive parent may inhibit their capacity to internalize right from wrong.

This approach may also cause children to deal with morals, ethics and values, not as givens, but as negotiated options. Later in life, they may find that supervisors, the law and societal rules are not that flrxible.

It is not a matter of rigidity. Parents can easily make allowances for their children’s behavior for various explained reasons. What is not advisable is to have a frequent divergence of instruction that highlights parental disagreements.

Some children are heard saying: “My father is so strict, but my mother is easy.” Or “My dad always says yes, even if mom is very much against it.” This view may be attributed to the parent’s personality, but models individual parenting rather than a team approach. Some children develop disrespect for one style, not uncommonly for the permissive parent, and fear or avoidance of the stricter one.

For some children these ways are associated with the parent’s gender and they later expect themselves and their spouses to perform similarly. To learn healthy parenting, a good early model is the most desirable teacher. Otherwise, old scripted patterns have to be broken in favor of new, more wholesome ones.

If you and your partner have different ideas about parenting, please consider:

• It is not about who is right and who is wrong in his or her parenting style; it is about having a joint approach that benefits your children the most.
• If you differ, take time to listen to each other’s perspective, validate it, then seek a compromise both of you can endorse. If you still struggle, consult parenting books, other parents’ advice and professionals who can provide helpful child development data.
• Present to your children a secure parental unity. It will help them mature confidently.
• Realize that avoiding saying “no” to your children may be driven by your need to be liked by them. It actually harms them.
• Abstain from contradicting your partner in front of the children about a position he or she took. Short of abusive conduct toward the child, parents should support each other in front of the children and negotiate future conduct later in private.
• Avoid pointing out to the children your divergent attitudes to their behavior. It only diminishes both parents’ power and lowers the children’s regard for both of you.
• If you keep the focus of your differences on what is within the best interest of the children, rather than about your power struggle with each other, you may find greater agreement and healthier parenting results.

November 6, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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