By Ron Huxley, LMFT
The most difficult problem I have when working with children, in my private practice, is the parents. When parents cannot agree on how to raise a child, and specifically, how to discipline, it is almost impossible to reach a solution. By the time parents reach me, the problem has been going on for such a long time that neither parent will budge from there position. It is only when one of the parents will give up some of the battle ground that I can help the parents help the child.
This is even truer in divorced or separated families. In these situations, the parents are more interested in returning cannon fire at the “other parent” for past wrongs then they are interested in co-parenting their children although
that is what they claim motivates their actions. They will fight with their child’s name as their battle cry, making their warring appear righteous and their violence just, and sacrificing the needs of their children for stable, cooperative parents.
But, I have few battle tactics myself. In those moments when parents cannot agree, I offer parents some difficult truces:
The first truce is called “Squatters Rights.” The first parent on the scene gets to do the discipline, no interference allowed. This works well for parents that cannot reach a compromise or with children who are masters at the “divide and conquer” routine. In this routine, the child, who may or may not have been the original transgressor, walks away from the crime, leaving warring parents in his or her wake. Why? Because the child has learned the art, dark and ugly as it is, of how to manipulate parents into a confrontation with one another to get out of trouble. Only parents who have recognized this routine with their children can use this truce effectively.
The second truce is called “Tag Team Discipline.” The other parent can only take over the discipline when the first parent signals for help. Just like tag team wrestling, a tag or signal must be made before the other parent can enter the ring. At that point it is the other parents turn to discipline and no interference is allowed from the first parent who left the ring. Unless a second tag is made. This truce will only work when parents recognize a need to cooperate more but can’t break out of old warring patterns with each other.
The third truce is called “Two Heads are Better Than One.” In this situation, no decision is made unless both parents have consulted one another and agree completely on the decision. If they do not agree, no decision is made. This will put an immediate stop to children whom play one parent against the other. It will work only for parents who are motivated to working cooperatively together but are having difficulty knowing how to get started.
The fourth truce is called “Getting Off the See-Saw.” You have seen a see-saw at a child’s play ground. It has a long board, usually with two seats at either end, resting of a bar or barrel so that the board can rock up and down. Parents who war with one another are like two children playing on a see-saw. Push down on one side of the see-saw and the other side goes up. Push back on the other side and the first side goes up. Parents who disagree are engaging in a rocking motion that is self-perpetuating. It becomes very difficult to stop playing on the see-saw, especially after years of practice. This truce is only for parents who sincerely want to stop the see-saw rhythm in their relationship but cannot get the other person to stop pushing on the see-saw. It requires that the parent, who wants to get off, to moving toward the middle of the see-saw and away from their extreme position. If your husband is too lax with the kids, act more permissive and he will be more authoritarian. If he is too harsh, set some firm limits and he may become softer. The other parent can’t help put push on their end, even if it is not the one they originally choose. Eventually they will be forced to step off and stand on equal ground.
The fifth truce is called the “Ben Franklin’s Problem Solving Method.” It has been said that whenever Ben Franklin, an American Patriarch and successful business man, could not make a decision, he would take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. He would then put all the reasons for the decision on one side of the line and all the reasons against it on the other. The side with the most reasons would win. The success of this method is its reliance on logic and facts versus emotions – a dangerous area for warring parents. It will only work for parents who have had some experience cooperating with one another but get stuck on a particularly emotional issues.
The six truce is called the “Coin Toss.” Sometimes parents, even cooperative ones, cannot reach an agreement. Usually the best choice here is to decide to not make a choice. But when that isn’t possible I suggest that parents simply toss a coin. One parent calls it in the air and which ever side it lands on that parent gets the final say. Of course, I am usually joking with the parents when I suggest this truce, but if they want to use it, each parent has 50 percent chance of winning. I know for a fact that this is a higher percentage than most parents get in decision-making with each other. Humor is an important skill in parental negotiations. When parents take parenting too seriously, they lose perspective on what they are trying to accomplish and war erupts. Families today experience more stress than families of the past. This is why humor and a flexible attitude is crucial to cooperation. This truce will only work for parents whom generally cooperate with one another but get stuck from time to time.
These six truces cover the full range of situations where parents can disagree about parenting. If they do not work, find a family therapist to help the negotiations. Otherwise, war will continue. As with real wars, innocent children are often victims of even the most righteous causes.