It is common for any two people from different family backgrounds to have experienced their own discipline differently and therefore to have different thoughts and feelings about discipline. For example, one person may come from a home where discipline was harsh. He might react to that experience by repeating it with his own kids, feeling that although it was painful, the results were obviously successful. Or, he might react to it by vowing never to discipline his children at all. This person’s parenting partner might have come from a home where discipline was appropriately balanced with warmth and love. The partner might feel comfortable copying this “authoratative parenting style” in the family. These two parents may have trouble working together; for instance, the harsh-history parent may have no tolerance for any kind of discipline of his children, no matter how mild, reasonable, or even necessary, it might be.
The Cost of Fighting About It
The trouble is, that when parents fight about discipline, children know it and feel it. The result is often “triangulation” in the family – a situation in which the child and more lenient or more reasonable parent form an alliance against the “mean,” stricter parent. The so-called “mean,” stricter parent may actually be the healthier parent, the one who is using reasonable discipline methods. However, when pitted against a no-discipline parent, the perceived “mean” one may lose the child’s affection. In other cases, the “mean” parent really is unreasonably strict and harsh. In general, kids don’t like to be disciplined and therefore, whichever parent does it less is likely to be favored by them. This can then rob the so-called “mean” parent of ALL parental power. The nice-parent-child team discredits the other parent to the point where the child may virtually lose one parent as a life resource. While the lenient parent might be trying to protect the child from the stricter or even harsher parent, he or she may accidentally end up robbing the child of the other parent altogether. When the situation leads to divorce (see below), the child may even lose his home. Except in the case of true abuse, trying to save the child from the other parent is harmful for the child.
In addition to the effect of triangulation on the child, there is an obvious effect on the marriage. No parent likes to be disempowered by the other. Resentment builds, sometimes to the point where divorce ensues. Even if the marriage lasts, there is often bitter animosity due to triangulation.
However, triangulation isn’t the only problem that can arise out of fights about discipline. Even if the child is close to both parents equally (or distant from them both equally), the fighting itself is an intense stress in the home. Children are always troubled and sometimes even traumatized by parental conflict. They often feel deep sadness and fear – sometimes for safety of themselves or their parents, and sometimes for the sustainability of the family unit. When the subject matter of the conflict is THEM (as it is when the subject is discipline), they may feel guilty in addition to being fearful or sad. When parents fight a lot, children can become depressed and troubled in many ways. Their physical health, mental health and ability to function may all be affected. For instance, many children get stress-related headaches, stomach aches, rashes and other physical symptoms when their parents argue about discipline. They can get depressed and/or anxious and develop an array of nervous habits and acting-out types of behaviors (such as being more argumentative themselves). Their schoolwork can suffer as well.
How Not to Fight about it
When parents have radically different views of what should happen in discipline, they need to work to get more on the same page. It could be that each parent has to move a little away from his or her own position and a little closer to the partner’s position. There are different ways for this to happen.
Parents can take a parenting course together. Learning philosophies and strategies from an objective outsider is often far easier than taking instruction from one’s spouse. While this outsider may be a parenting insructor in a group setting, it can also be a private practitioner (such as a family therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional). Choose a professional who has a special expertise in parenting in order to get the most helpful guidance. Parents can also read and discuss a parenting book together (have a book-club a deux) or look up questions and answers on-line together.
Another strategy to attain a meeting of the minds on the subject of discipline, is to refrain from criticizing your partner’s parenting EVER. If you don’t like what your spouse is doing, approach him or her with curiosity and a desire to understand rather than with complaint and criticism. For instance, suppose your spouse gave your son a negative consequence on Monday for failing to come home by his curfew (“you’ve lost your cell phone for a week…”). On Tuesday, you see that your spouse has returned your son’s cell phone to him already, clearly failing to follow through with discipline. Avoid approaching your spouse in a confrontational manner – “If you never carry through, he’ll never learn”…etc. Instead, you ASK your spouse what made him or her change his mind. Ask this with genuine curiousity, not with bitter sarcasm. Greet the answer with Emotional Coaching (empathic listening and naming of feelings). For example, imagine that your spouse explains, “I felt bad for him. He really needs that phone.” You might respond with, “You’re such a good mom/dad – you really care about him! I’m just wondering how we’re going to help him come home on time – I get so worried when he stays out past his curfew – I really want us to be able to get this through to him. What do you think we should do about it?” If every disciplinary difference of opinion is handled in a caring, respectful manner, the parents will be able to negotiate their differences and find ways to do what’s best for the kids – eventually.
Finally, parents who are too harsh or too lenient in their discipline styles tend to love their children and are trying to do what they think is best for the child. Because of this, most people can see the wisdom of applying the 80-20 Rule. The 80-20 Rule is the ideal good-feeling to bad-feeling ratio of parenting communications to children. Laughter, praise, gifts, physical affection, empathy, and any other good-feeling communication needs to happen 4 times for every 1 bad-feeling communication like giving an instruction, correction, complaint, threat of punishment, actual punishment and so on. Moreover, the bad-feeling communications need to be only mildy-bad-feeling. Otherwise, they can completely wipe out the positive effects of the good-feeling communications, no matter how many there might have been. Full details on the 80-20 Rule are available in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.