Little Suzy asks her mother if she can have an ice cream sandwich before dinner. Her mother says no. In her motherly wisdom, she intuits that ice cream before dinner equals a child with no appetite for steamed broccoli. Little Suzy is not happy with mom’s response, so she finds dad, who is in the middle of watching Monday night football.
She asks her dad if she can have the ice cream sandwich. He, not being quite as aware of the potential nutritional apocalypse, and trying not to be distracted from the play action, says yes.
Little Suzy gets what she wants: the ice cream sandwich. Dad and mom, on the other hand, get something they don’t want: a fight with each other. Mom doesn’t understand how dad could, first of all, think that having an ice cream sandwich before dinner is okay, and second of all, have the gall to overturn her prior ruling.
Mom and dad fight for a while, then eventually come to the conclusion that this is not their fault. It is Suzy’s fault. After all, she should know better than to play parents against each other. It’s not cool. It’s manipulative and wrong. And on this last point, mom and dad are right. But the idea that this is all Suzy’s fault is wrong.
Kids are indeed manipulative. But the system is what’s at fault. When the system is weak, kids learn how to “work” it to their advantage. Mom and Dad need to institute a better plan to show Suzy that they are a unified front.
Here’s how they might go about doing that:
1. Forget the idea of “dad’s rules” and “mom’s rules.” Talk about “our rules.”
I sort of cringe when I’m at the grocery store and hear a mom tell little Joey to “put down the candy bar, because you know your dad doesn’t want you to have that…” What kind of a message does a statement like that send? It tells the child that the rule you’re enforcing is so disagreeable to you that you have to stamp your spouse’s name on it as a disclaimer. A kid who sees that opening is going to run right through it.
You need rule unity. That means that at some point in your marriage, you get together as a couple away from the kids and decide what your house rules are. Decide as a couple what’s a felony and what’s a misdemeanor in your home, and how you’ll deal with those offenses.
Your kids can only be as clear on the rules as you are. If there’s a bunch of confusion between you and your spouse about what will or will not be allowed, expect your kids to be just as confused, if not more.
Once you decide on a conduct code for your house, share it with the kids in a way that communicates you’re both in agreement on these things. They aren’t “dad’s rules” and “mom’s rules,” they are “our rules.” There’s tremendous power in the word “we.”
2. Disagree later, and privately.
There will absolutely be times when you don’t agree with your spouse’s answer to a “Mom can I…” question, but resist the temptation to disagree with them about it immediately in front of your kids.
In the first place, it’s probably not best to get stuck in an unpleasant conflict in front of your kids, and in the second place, it teaches your kids where the weaknesses are in your discipline strategy. It’s far better to wait until a private moment, share your concern or point of disagreement, and discuss it in a productive way.
Remember, because you are two different individuals with different families of origin, different personalities, and different approaches to life, it’s completely normal to have differences of opinion. Expect them. Just make sure that when they happen, you don’t make things worse by inviting your kids to be an audience to that conversation.
Disclaimer: This point doesn’t deal with abusive situations. When a child is being abused, you should take appropriate action and reach out to a trusted source of help immediately.
3. Set a boundary against manipulation.
When I was growing up, one of the first rules I learned in the Hoover household was that asking mom for something after dad said no (or the other way around) was not okay, and would bring about negative consequences. My parents didn’t set that boundary for me because they were trying to be mean or unfair, but because they wanted to teach me something about authority. They knew that if I learned to “get around” authority as a child, I would have a problem with “getting around” authority as an adult.
It’s wise, I believe, to teach your kids that shopping around for the most permissive parent is not acceptable. In our household, we’ve worked this rule into our discipline strategy. Our kids know that if they do this, they will probably lose a privilege as a consequence.
We want them to be motivated to work within the guidelines an authority sets. After all, if you want your kid to respect their boss someday, you need them to respect you and your spouse today.
Rule unity in a home is a powerful thing. It simplifies life for your kids in that it makes the rules and boundaries very clear. It reduces conflict in your marriage, because you’re going into this as a team. And, ultimately, it sets your children up for success in life, because people who learn to understand and respect authority go farthest.
By the way, my favorite author on this topic is Dr. Kevin Leman. His “Have a New Kid by Friday” book is solid gold for couples looking to develop great unified discipline strategies. I also love his book “Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours.” For step-families struggling in this area, let me recommend the work of Ron Deal. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a genius at helping blended families thrive even in the middle of challenging circumstances. My favorite books he’s written are “The Smart Step-Family” and “Dating and the Single Parent.”