Q. My spouse and I cannot agree on how to raise our kids. I think my spouse is too strict and my spouse thinks I am too lenient. Meanwhile, the kids are getting away with everything. What can we do?
A. This is an excellent and all-too-common question. So, in typical therapist fashion, I’m going to begin my answer with a question.
Where in the world did we get the idea that two parents have to agree on every aspect of parenting? Somehow, we are supposed to believe that two separate individuals, who grew up with different models of how to parent (if they had models at all), different life experiences and probably different temperaments, are now going to come together and agree on every facet of the complicated task of parenting.
Sorry, I just don’t buy it.
Not only is this an unworkable notion in the real world, it can be a damaging one as well. The optimal goal, of course, would be for these two different people to combine their respective parenting styles into a well-functioning and supportive parenting team. This is difficult, although it can and does happen. But when people believe the lie about always having to agree, a power struggle can be set up between the two adults.
We all like to be right and we tend to fight for our positions. In too many situations, instead of coming together as a team, parents grow farther and farther apart, rigidly adhering to their own styles.
A person with a more strict style has something to learn from the person with a more lenient style, and vice versa. But instead of learning from each other, the strict one becomes more strict and the lenient one becomes more lenient. This creates, at best, criticism and resentment and a gap big enough for a child to drive a truck through. The children suffer, and the parents cancel each other out.
It also sets up what I call the “parent trap.” Picture the face of a clock. At 12 o’clock is the word “angry,” at four the word “sympathy” and at eight the phrase “taken advantage of.”
The trap begins when a child misbehaves, does something wrong or gets in trouble. The parent starts at the top of the clock, becomes “angry” and says something like “OK, that does it, you are grounded for life!” or some equally realistic statement.
After a while, the parent moves on down the clock to “sympathy,” and lets the child off the hook.
Sure enough, the child takes advantage, and repeats the same action or something equally frustrating. This moves the parent over to feeling “taken advantage of.” The parent doesn’t feel this way for too long before thinking or saying, “How could you do this after all I’ve done for you!?!” The parent quickly returns to the top of the clock and “anger.”
Do you see the vicious circle this sets up? In the middle is the child, running the show.
Now let’s complicate this process even more, with our two different parenting styles. Imagine having one parent stuck on anger and the other one stuck on sympathy, or some equally damaging combination. There’s that hole you can drive a truck through.
There are many useful ways to get out of this parent trap. One of the simplest is called the odd/even schedule.
Here’s how it works: On odd-numbered days, one parent will be in charge of parenting. That means that all discipline, privileges, discussions, etc., go through that parent for that entire day. The other parent is to stand by and merely observe (unless there is blood or some other legitimate emergency).
The parent who is on for that day can call on the other parent as a consultant if he or she so chooses. Otherwise, the off parent is required to “sit on their wisdom” for the day. On the next day, the even day, the roles are simply reversed. The parent who was in charge is off, and the parent who was off is in charge.
This plan can benefit the family in several ways:
The parents come together to agree to follow the plan.
Each parent gets to see the other one in action and see that he or she can parent.
Each parent gets to practice his or her own parenting skills.
The children get to see each parent in charge.
The door is open for the parents to come together as a team.
The task of parenting is difficult enough without it becoming a power struggle between the two adults. It’s crucial to remember that the goal is to form an effective team, with both parents drawing on their own unique skills and learning from each other. In this way, the entire family benefits.