Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Parents: Don't Undermine Each Other In Front Of Kids

May 3, 2004

Fighting about parenting in front of children is bad. It is bad for the children and it is bad for the marriage. In some ways it is the worst argument a couple can have.

When parents show disrespect for each other’s parenting skills, it takes a huge toll on the marriage. Worse yet, when it happens in front of the kids, it undermines parental authority, confuses children and puts them in a position of manipulating or having to choose sides.

An example. Carla and Rick (not their real names) fight about their differences in parenting in front of the kids. Verbally and non-verbally, they clearly show their disrespect and lack of support for their partner's parenting. They intercede in discipline situations, voice disapproval and start arguing then and there about who is right.

Rick's father was an authoritarian who expected instant obedience and had a heavy hand when it came to discipline. Because of the way he was raised, Rick had a "spare the rod, spoil the child" belief about parenting. Rick had no experience with disobedience or disrespect because it never happened in his family.

Carla grew up in a home where her father wasn't around much, and when he was, he left the discipline in her mother's hands. Carla remembers her mother being strict but fair and accepting of emotions and complaints.

In her own home, Carla has a hard time understanding and accepting Rick's jumping in with what she thinks is an overly harsh reaction to the children's problems. She feels Rick yells too much, expects instant responses and doesn’t show enough love.

Both are opinionated, strong-minded people who have tempers and are quick to defend themselves. Rick’s belief is that Carla is an inconsistent mother who tolerates disrespect and irresponsibility. Carla believes that Rick’s temper and tough rules are turning the kids against him.

They are in a classic power struggle. They find plenty of opportunities to lecture or criticize each other. It seems like they are more concerned with proving themselves right, saving face, protecting their egos, and getting back at each other than with how this might be affecting the kids.

How does this fighting affect the kids? The kids learn to take sides and manipulate their parents. Sadly, they learn to disrespect authority and to feel exempt from hard and fast rules. They also feel insecure about themselves and especially about their parents fighting. If the marriage breaks up, they can easily think it was their fault.

Moreover, Rick and Carla's children don't have good role models for listening, solving problems, or respecting the opinions of others. They are growing up not knowing how problems are solved in close, intimate relationships. Just like their parents, they may withdraw, explode, argue incessantly, or change the subject from one area of disagreement to another.

How to support each other. If you are having problems like those of Rick and Carla, here are some suggestions on how to get some peace and love back in the family.

- Form a united front. Short of emotional and physical abuse, openly support each other's discipline even if you disagree with it. Be careful not to show disrespect to your partner. Don't contradict your partner's decisions. Be team players.

- Check it out. Develop a habit of checking with your mate on decisions in situations where he or she may have already made commitments.

- Raise issues in private. Work out a common strategy for discipline behind closed doors. Don’t argue - negotiate. Involve the children in discussing and understanding the rules and consequences. If you have a clear, understandable approach to discipline, it shouldn’t matter who is doing the disciplining. If you observe inconsistencies in your spouse’s approach, bring up your observations privately and resolve it there.

- Give in. Couples don't have to agree on everything, only the important things. Some issues mean a lot more to one person in a relationship than the other. To your mate, they may be principles. To you, they are preferences. What you feel may be best may not be "right" when you take your partner into account.

- Understand each other. Have deep discussions about each of your backgrounds so that each of you has an appreciation for why your spouse feels and reacts they way he or she does. Show compassion for each other’s struggles in this area. Search for middle ground.

- Learn better communications skills. A persistent disagreement about child rearing may be a sign of poor communication and problem-solving skills. Learn to send non-abrasive messages. Listen non-defensively and really try to understand your partner's feelings and ideas. Learn not to interrupt. Be careful with anger and disrespectful judgments. Your love and enjoyment of the marriage will help create the extra tolerance you need to deal with differences.

- Get counseling. Disagreements about parenting might also be masking other problems in a marriage. To get at touchy issues, you or your partner may need the safety, guidance and support of an objective third party. Feelings need to be expressed, and they especially need to be "heard."

Children need to see parents work out conflict in positive and constructive ways. However disagreements about parenting shouldn’t occur in front of them. Everybody loses when that happens.