Parenting Differences: Six Truces for Divorced Parents

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.

Parenting Differences: Attract and Annoy!

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Remember what attracted you to your mate when you first got married? Are those characteristics that originally attracted you to your partner the very things drive you crazy now? The old saying “opposites attract” may have a lot of truth when it comes to creating a balanced parenting relationship but it is also true that those styles of parenting can rips homes apart and be a source of constant parenting struggle. It is natural for people to want to fill in the gaps of their personality or find a compliment to their own skills and abilities. These different styles unconsciously “round out” their parenting roles. This is why one partner may be more aggressive, more organized, more emotional, or more controlled than the other partner and why together the two personalities seem, at least at first glance, to be a good “team.” Just as values are largely unconscious and tucked out of parents awareness, certain styles of parenting that were attractive early on in the parenting relationship are also largely unconscious. Parents may have fallen in love, not just with the other person, but with their ability to make firm decisions or feel passionate about something. Parents may have even fallen in love with characteristics they lacked or felt they never could adequately provide for a child. The ability of one parent to follow a budget or use common sense may impress another parent whose checkbook is always unbalanced or feels their finances and life are out of control. The other person creates a sense of balance in their life that translates to a feeling of balance of love and limits during child rearing. After a while, though, these attractive attributes can become annoying. The parenting partner, who provided a sense of stability early on in the relationship and could offer common sense when the baby cried all night long, is seen as boring, emotionally detached, and too rigid later on in the relationship. PARENTING PERSPECTIVES Parenting changes how people perceive themselves. Setting limits on one’s checkbook is different than setting limits on a child. And nurturing oneself is very different from nurturing a totally depended, often demanding infant. This evolution from “partners in love” to “partners in parenting” creates a feeling of imbalance. Having a child forces the partners to merge two sets of cultures, parenting values, and beliefs. It also brings up positive and negative memories of a parent’s own childhood. Parents, who had abusive parents or whose partner had abusive parents, may fear their own children being abused. And parents who idealized their parents may feel incompetent when comparing their own parenting skills to their parental figures. Now, as parents, the positive attributes that attracted one parenting partner to another, reminds partners of negative traits in there own parents. The organizational skills they admired in their partner and in their own parents also remind them of the compulsive, rigid behavior of their parent. The spontaneity and attention given by one’s partner also reminds them of their parents smothering overprotection. DECISION, DECISIONS Having children also force partners to make decisions they never had to be make before. It requires them to act cooperatively with one another on such things as who stays home with the child when he or she is sick; how to deal with a bad grade on a report card; or how to handle a child who has an emotional or behavioral disorder, all of which can result in parental disagreements, arguments, and resentments. Even the value that parenting partners must be, act, or react in the same manner can be disastrous to a balance of love and limits. Fortunately, these differences can become the groundwork for a fuller relationship if partners are willing to learn from one another rather than continue the vicious cycle of anger and resentment. This is possible only where both parents make an honest attempt at communication and cooperation. In addition, partners can learn from one another’s differences and incorporate the others strengths into their own parenting style. LEARNING FROM DIFFERENCES The first step to learning from the other parenting figure is to accept that differences are acceptable, even necessary, in the parenting relationship. If one parent is to develop certain parenting characteristics they never received from their own parental figures, they must accept and allow the other person to demonstrates these qualities. Believing that the other parent has something valuable to offer the parenting relationship will create cooperation in the difficult task of raising a child rather than resentment. The second step is to learn new ways to parent from the example of the other parent. Getting out of the way and letting them “do their thing” will not produce growth in one’s own parenting skills. Letting the other person have their way is not synonymous with learning. This can become learned helplessness, which results in negative feelings toward oneself and the other partner. While one parent may never be quite as good at setting firm rules at bedtime, they can learn to do it more frequent and more consistently than they have in the past, simply by learning from the example of the other parent. The third step is to agree to disagree. Not every parenting decision will be made in total agreement. Nor should one person, regardless of how confident or aggressive they are in making decisions make every decision. Parenting partners can take turns on how to take care of night-time fears, with one parent singing and holding the child one week and the other parent scaring away the bedtime monsters with a flashlight, the next. Or they can compromise by finding a third, equally agreeable solution to getting their child to stay in bed. If an equally agreeable solution does not present itself, partners can always “agree to disagree” by waiting until a third solution does becomes possible. “Agreeing to disagree” is helpful when a discussion becomes “heated” and partners need to wait until both parties are feeling “cooler” and better able to see the other person’s viewpoint. This behavior is a powerful model to children. It demonstrates that parents can be different and disagree without engaging in a physical or verbal battle. It communicates to the children that “we are working it out.” And relationships can continue to be satisfying (or balanced) even when an issue is not yet settled. The fourth step is to recognize that the negative or uncooperative behavior seen in the other parent may be a reflection of a characteristic of their own personality of their past and not the other parenting partner after all. It may be a habit learned from parental figures in one’s own childhood about how to deal with a frustrating situation or cope with a problem. Take time to reflect on your own past and talk with the other partner about childhood experiences. Insight, not ignorance, will lead to intimacy. And the fifth step is to have a discussion on balancing parenting styles free of name-calling, blaming, or shaming one another. Don’t make the other parent feel bad by labeling them “stubborn,” talking about them in front of friends, or constantly pointing out their flaws. If this is too difficult to master, parenting partners will need to find help to deal with these destructive communication styles. While it is true that “opposites attract” it is also true that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

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