Parenting experts often say that parents should put up a ‘unified front’ before their children and that each one’s messages should be consistent with the other’s. But parents are people, not gods.
Both parents are individuals with their own personalities and views; they cannot feel the same on all issues. So, this is an unreasonable expectation. Yet, it cannot be denied that when parents express differing views, it can confuse the child.
For example, a child is jumping on the sofa and one parent says, “Stop it, you are spoiling the sofa!” But the other parent says, “He is just a child. This is the age for him to enjoy. Let him jump!”
This is a small example, but what about the more serious issues that invariably crop up as the children grow older? What if the child has not studied for a test and wants to bunk school, and one parent feels that it is okay but the other feels that it is wrong? How will the child figure out what really is right or wrong?
Who is right?
All of us experience such situations and also know how it feels when we are contradicted, and our opinion is sometimes ‘put down’ in front of our child, or our authority is undermined in a similar manner.
Your son wants to buy a new toy car and you promise to buy one for him. But when your wife finds out, she says, “What nonsense! He already has too many cars. Don’t keep spoiling him.”
Your teenage daughter wants to go out with her friends to a movie, and you have readily agreed. But when your husband comes home, he says, “You are not old enough to be going out with your friends, and I will not allow it.”
While conflicting opinions are a part of life, it is also important to focus on how parents can work through these differences so that the child ultimately benefits. In fact, we can use these occasions to give our children the message that differences of opinion are a normal part of life but that they can and should be resolved in a healthy manner.
After all, both parents love their children equally and want the best for them (and this is broadly true of extended family members like grandparents, and uncles/aunts). So the principles we discuss on the adjacent page can be applied to such situations, too.
When conflict occurs, instead of getting into an ego clash over who is right and wrong, let us first agree upon:
The approach: In a family, we all have our own needs. Neatness, studies/good marks, punctuality, fitness, respecting elders – to each of us, they hold different values. Let us become aware of our needs, and find solutions in which the needs of all family members are respected and met. Let us create a family culture where each person’s needs are given importance, but not at the cost of the needs of others. Let us take the following example:
Everyday, the father returns home late from work and just as the child is getting ready for bed, he starts playing ball with the child. As a result, the child gets over-excited and takes a long time to fall asleep. The mother is very upset about the repeated delay in sleep time. To resolve this situation, this is what we can do:
Step 1: Become aware of each person’s needs
Father gets very little time with the child, and so wants that time to have fun and connect with his child.
Mother is tired at the end of the day, wants the routine to be followed and wants the child to sleep on time. She is worried about his health.
Child wants to play with the dad, whom he has not seen all day, but he also needs his full night’s sleep.
Step 2: Communicate to find solutions
To meet needs, we have to first be willing to communicate in a way that no one is blamed (“You always make him late for bed.”) or thwarted (“I will play with him. Let’s see what you can do.”).
If we express clearly what each of us needs without overtly or covertly criticizing the other, then we create an environment in which solutions can be found:
Mom: I am really worried about his sleep time. OR I am so tired. I just want to go to bed.
Dad: I really miss spending time with him. This play time means so much to me.
Child: I wait all day to play with papa.
Step 3: Create a win-win situation
Once we have shared our needs and understood the needs of others, we are more open to considering win-win options:
Mother may understand that this time is really important for father and child. So she may have the child take a longer afternoon nap and even take one herself.
Father may try to come home early or even come home briefly at lunch time.
They may agree to stick to an early bedtime on weekdays and then do the fun playing on weekends.
Father may change the nature of the bonding on weekdays to something calmer like reading a book rather than physical play, so that the child winds down easily.
Father may start getting up early to play with the child.
Father may tell the mother, “If you are tired, you go to sleep. I will make him sleep.”
Express your need clearly without criticising the other person. NOT- Why do you always delay his bedtime? INSTEAD- I am worried that if he does not sleep on time, he will find it hard to get up in the morning (the focus is on the child rather than on the dad’s behaviour).
Discuss with your spouse and agree on some ground rules to be followed by your child: Agree on rules regarding bath, bedtime, getting ready in the morning, homework, TV, junk food and the like. This will help avoid daily friction with your spouse, and prevent conflicting messages from being sent to your child.
If you see your child being ‘put down’, you may support him: Your spouse in anger calls your child stupid. You may bring up the house rules and say, “No name calling is allowed in this family, please.” Or, if your spouse teases your teenage daughter and calls her ‘chubby’ when you know that she is very conscious of her figure, you may gently say, “I think she has a very nice figure and is perfectly healthy.”
Be open to understanding your spouse’s needs and supporting them: If your spouse is very particular about neatness but you are not, you can tell your child - “It really bothers Appa when things are scattered. Why don’t we clear up before he comes home?” This is very different from frightening the child by saying, “Appa will be very angry if the house is not clean. So put away your toys.”
Focus on your common goal: Think of the well-being of your child (instead of getting into an ego clash with your spouse). If you see something affecting the child, highlight that – “I think hitting him is only making him angrier and is not helping him to learn” RATHER THAN saying “You should not hit him. That’s the wrong thing to do” (criticism/judgement).
When arguments occur, explain to your child what is going on: Children get terribly upset when they see their parents argue, and sometimes blame themselves for it. It’s better to talk to them about the fact that you two do have different points of view but are trying to work it out, and that does not mean that parents do not love each other. Disagreements are a part of life and sometimes we agree to disagree.
Guidelines to help you present a ‘united front’
As parents, even if we have drastically different views on how to bring up our children and feel that our spouse is not open to dialogue, it is important to believe that we want the best for our children. Although it is not easy, constant and genuine dialogue focussing on what is really helping or harming the children will go a long way.
As children grow, they quickly find out that mom and dad are quite different people: mom is particular about neatness and homework, while dad wants me to be respectful to elders and be good at sports. Children make their own decisions about whose expectations they want to live up to (if at all!) according to their own personalities, and may also develop their own world view.
A ‘united front’ on some basic values which both parents believe in will give the children a strong foundation, and the differing but respected views of their parents on other matters will teach them to appreciate diversity.
Kesang Menezes is a facilitator with ‘Parenting Matters’ , a Chennai-based group conducting parenting workshops.