Most parents intend to parent well together – presenting a united front, working as a team, in sync in decisions big and small. Most parents would also agree that this often easier said than done. Parenting on the same page is a challenge when you and your partner live in the same house. It’s extra challenging when you parent from different houses, or in a blended family situation.
There are lots of reasons for the ‘united parenting’ struggle, but at the heart of the issue is the fact that people have different personalities and temperaments. We think and act differently. Also having a major impact is the fact that we come from different family backgrounds and were parented differently when we were kids.
There are a number of tricky spots that most families encounter at some stage. The great news is that these issues can be addressed. With a bit of effort, we can significantly improve the atmosphere in our homes (and these changes work in whatever family shape you find yourself in). It’s basically a matter of learning what ‘little dances’ are going on and how to work in sync, not in opposition. Here are some examples, with strategies for enhanced harmony.
1. Dad says ‘No’ and Mum says ‘Yes’
One parent makes a decision and the other parent, often fueled by the insistence of a child, disputes that decision. It’s easy to spot – especially at the supermarket. One parent says ‘No’ to the lollies, the other is then asked and hesitates… They know they should say ‘No’, but they really want to say ‘Yes’ – tempting as it is to override a decision one is not fully committed to.
Children are great little researchers and many work out that causing a diversion will help them get what they want. In this instance, what can happen is that the parents will argue with each other’s decision as if that is the most important factor. Meanwhile, a child’s desires are often met when one parent wins the argument (‘Yes, we’re buying the lollies’), but loses an important part of their support system – i.e., the other parent. What’s worse is that this situation is likely to cause resentment in the parent who is being overridden.
Instead, we need to back each other up
It is not always possible to agree with one another, but even if we don’t agree, we can still back each other up. Personal preferences need to be put aside so that if your partner has decided on something, you back them up – even if you don’t see the need to be that strict or that soft. That support builds a strong team and your child needs to see that strength very clearly displayed.
2. The see-saw
This occurs when one parent leans towards being strict, controlling and a bit on the harsh side while the other parent is uncomfortable with that style and leans towards being softer and gentler to try and correct the imbalance.
Both parents can feel forced into a style or parenting position that they don’t really want to be in. They conclude – ‘If he is too hard on the kids, I have to be the soft one’. Or ‘If she is too indulgent, then I have to balance the books and be the disciplinarian.’ It is easy to feel resentful when forced to counter-balance your partner’s style of parenting.
Instead, swap and share
Most parents want to be able to relax and have fun with their kids. It can help to intentionally take turns at ‘downing tools’ and having the fun. Some families stop getting stuck in their roles by swapping them so that the stricter parent does what the more lenient parent would normally do, and vice versa. This also helps each parent see things from a different angle.
3. ‘Knocking off’ early
One parent can be doing the lion’s share of the parenting while the other one is a bit oblivious to what is going on. When one parent abdicates and is no longer present to help follow through with something that the child has been asked to do, anger and frustration can be the result. This one regularly happens at the end of the day when everyone is tired and there is a mountain of work still to do.
Instead, stay tuned in
Both parents need to stay mindful of what is going on and check in on each other as to what is needed. It can really help if the parent who is not initiating the requests stays alert and vigilant enough to step in firmly and gently when the child is losing focus or ignoring instructions. It might sound something like “Nathan, off you go love – I heard Dad ask you to get in your pyjamas as soon as you had finished your turn on the computer.”
4. ‘That’s typical – they’re so hopeless.’
Running the other parent down can be subtle or overt. Eye rolling, sighing and looks of ‘What on earth are you doing?’ are powerful ways of undermining your team mate, and thus eroding your unity. Children will pick up on any expressions of disrespect or contempt, causing further fractures.
Instead, prioritise respect
This isn’t easy! One parent can see a much better way of doing something and they feel the other parent does not have same ability. As hard as it feels, this is the time to compose yourself, hold your tongue and stifle the sighing! Be helpful if you can and later on discuss the issue – out of earshot of the kids.
5. Forming a parent-to-child alliance
Sometimes a parent can feel closer to their child than to their partner. Sometimes an unmet need of their own can cause a parent to feel desperate to be liked/needed/adored by a child. At other times, one parent can feel that the other is out of touch with what the child really needs. A parent-to-child alliance can look like:
- You whisper to your child that when daddy has gone to work, they will be allowed back on the computer.
- You slip your child the money that her mother said she needed to earn doing a chore.
- You wink knowingly at your child – showing them that the two of you have a special understanding.
Instead, form a parent-to-parent alliance
Children feel safe and secure when they know they cannot drive a wedge between their parents. This does not mean that they won’t try, but deep down they don’t actually want to be successful. A child left to control the relationships in a family has been given way too much power and this will ultimately unsettle them. Children know that the big people in their lives are the ones who work together for their good. A parent-to-parent alliance does not mean you are excluding your kids. In fact, you are welcoming them to be part of the family – just not as the boss or commander.
6. Knowledge is power, but don’t hold it all to yourself.
Generally speaking, one parent is often in the position of knowing more accurately how a child is doing, simply because they are around the child the most. They know how tired, hungry, on the verge of losing it they are, how long they have been waiting for something, what disappointed them at school that day etc. This knowledge guides the parent on what to expect and how to help the child through the next transition. The parent who has been less involved, who may have just returned home from work, is often keen to be of assistance but lacks the knowledge of the ‘lay of the land’. This is where things can get tense. The ‘fresh’ parent may assume that the child, who is taking their time to get into the shower, is just fooling around. They can come on too heavy or make some quick judgments that aren’t helpful.
Instead, pass the baton
Just as they do in hospitals – when a nurse goes off duty and leaves sufficient notes for the next shift to read up on – parents can spend a portion of their time together getting an update on the ‘state of the nation’. Being informed is a great way to parent fairly and with good reasons behind you.
Children look to the big people in their lives to show them how to behave. They watch how parents work together and they learn from that model. If children can see respect, negotiation, discussion and consideration, they will feel safe and secure and can get on with the business of being children within a family, not children ruling the family. Most parents – whether together as a couple or parenting separately – would say that it is easy to get off-side with the person who can most beneficially support and strengthen the role of parenting. Therefore, it’s worth learning to work strongly and purposefully together.
Written by Jenny Hale
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