United, We Stand …

Sometimes the toughest thing about being a firm and consistent parent is … umm … the other parent. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to go it alone, but every now and then I like to be the one to handle a problem without another expert opinion in the mix.

When parents disagree about discipline it can lead to difficulties that go beyond not picking up toys after playing with them. Studies at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have found that parents who have significantly different child-rearing styles are more likely to have children with behavior problems than families who have similar styles.

If you’re anything like me, you and Honey are never going to agree 100% about everything discipline-wise, but a few guidelines can keep the focus on the kids, rather than on your negotiations with each other. So here are a few simple rules of engagement that help keep Mom and Dad on the same page in our family. Maybe they’ll be useful for yours.

We’re on the journey together … We have the same ultimate goal in mind — raising happy, healthy kids who grow up to be kind, responsible, productive adults. We know the direction we’re going, and the road to get there has major landmarks and navigation that we’ve already agreed on (hopefully prior to the delivery room). Though we undoubtedly have to compromise on how to avoid some potholes along the way, the destination is shared.

Whoever starts it, finishes it … If I embark on a corrective action it’s up to me to complete the job in the way I feel is most effective. The same goes for Dad. So when it’s driving me nuts that Daughter has forgotten to feed HER cat (whose adoption was predicated on her promise to take total responsibility) for 4 days in a row, and I decide the consequences include a conversation about caring for living beings PLUS some add-on chores and 24 hours in the dungeon without food and water (kidding!), Dad doesn’t get to yell from the other room, “Don’t you think you’re being too hard on her?” Ix-nay. Not OK. It’s my game. No comment.

‘No’ Wins … There will be times (take my word for it) when Dad says, “Sure, I don’t see why not”, and you say, ” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” For some reason, it’s not uncommon for one parent to see a request as entirely reasonable while the other is horrified at the thought. In our house we follow the principle of veto power. If either parent responds with a resounding NO, then no it is. This avoids any number of circular arguments about what is, or is not, appropriate behavior for your fill-in-the-blank year old.

NEVER contradict each other in front of the kids … In spite of your best efforts, there may be those moments when you’re in the midst of a family ‘discussion’ and it becomes clear that you are in profound disagreement about how to handle the situation. This is clutch time, and the temptation to lash out about why you’re right and he’s wrong can feel overwhelming. Take a deep breath, step back, and declare something like, “Time out! Would you join me for a brief moment in the other room?” Then take it out of earshot, come to agreement and join forces. It’s critical you appear as a united front. Otherwise they’ll quickly divide and conquer. Trust me, they’re brilliant tacticians and know just how to crumble your alliance.

Reinforce … After the fact be sure to demonstrate how allied and sure of your position you are. Leave no room for doubt. Pound home the idea that “Mom and Dad know best” with reassurance that all worked out as it should.

Remember, kids crave secure boundaries and depend on you both to provide them, even if it sometimes involves kicking and screaming. Theirs, not yours.

Note: These 5 rules can apply to divorced families as well. You don’t have to be married to your co-parent to discipline effectively.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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