"We Can't Agree on Disciplining Our Kids"
SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)

lhj

"We Can't Agree on Disciplining Our Kids"

Erin and Jack's constant bickering over how to discipline their son is ruining their marriage. Can a marriage counselor help this couple reconcile their parenting styles? Can this marriage be saved?

Her Turn

"We Can't Stop Fighting"

"Childcare experts always say it's important to be on the same 'parenting page,'" said Erin, 32, a museum curator with three children, Max, 7, Zoe, 2, and Emma, 8 months. "Well, Jack and I aren't even in the same book! We can't stop fighting about how to handle Max, our 7-year-old. We bicker constantly, and loudly, in front of all three kids.

"Jack can be so nasty. Here's an example: The other day Max accidentally closed his bedroom door, barely missing Zoe. He didn't realize his sister had toddled after him, and she was scared but not hurt. Jack was livid. 'How could you let Max do that?' he asked in that condescending tone that makes me see red. Before we knew it, we were on our typical roll: I'm yelling at him. He's yelling back. The little ones start to cry. Max yells at us to cut it out, and another evening is shot. So instead of looking forward to my husband coming home from work, I find myself getting anxious, wondering what the fight will be about this time.

"Jack calls me a wimp and says I give in too easily to Max. But I don't believe in lots of rules and punishments. I work full-time, so when I have time with my son, I don't want every moment to be a discipline session. I think parents should explain to kids why something isn't appropriate. True, my explanations don't always work and sometimes I end up yelling at them myself. Still, it's better than just barking orders. And while I care about good nutrition, I try not to get uptight about it. Right now Max is obsessed with sweets, and abolishing them, as Jack advocates, will only make them more desirable. Besides, when I'm trying to make dinner and bathe the baby, I can't keep track of how many cookies Max has eaten. Inevitably, just as he is reaching for one, Jack will walk in and yell, 'Don't eat that -- you'll ruin your dinner!'

"Jack also can't stand it when Max pops up from the table instead of sitting quietly, napkin on lap. But, honestly, how many 7-year-olds do?

"It's the same with neatness. 'Clean up this mess now,' he'll bellow, 'or no TV for a week!' I, on the other hand, do not expect every Matchbox car to be in its place. I'll go on the occasional cleaning binge, but with three kids, I usually have other priorities. Besides, forbidding TV for a week is extreme. Jack also thinks Max should clean up his messes, and again, that's fine in theory, but it doesn't work in reality. Last week, for example, Max decided to make a magic potion like Harry Potter would by mixing shampoos in a 'cauldron' -- our lobster pot -- just as I was getting everyone ready to head to the library. I couldn't halt everything and insist that Max clean it up. We'd never have made it out of the house, especially since Max is a world-class dawdler.

 

Her Turn, continued

"Though Jack and I planned to marry, things sped up when I became pregnant. Jack wanted to move closer to Boston, since his office was in the city, but I was thrilled when my mother found the perfect house for us in the suburb where she and Dad live. For me, it's been great because she often watches the kids while I'm at work.

"But that's another sore point. Jack thinks she sabotages our disciplinary efforts because she'll do things like let Max watch two cartoon shows in a row. I'm not crazy about everything she does, either, but Jack blows it out of proportion. He thinks she's domineering, but she just wants to help the people she loves. As a child, I'd go to her when I was upset; I still do. I like to talk through problems, which Jack loathes. He issues orders, then expects everyone to fall in step.

"I'm sure it would help if we could spend five minutes alone, but Jack recently got a promotion and is working longer hours than ever. Besides, at this point, I doubt we could manage five minutes without arguing."

His Turn

"I'm the Designated Bad Guy"

"This couple's deep love for each other was evident, but their constant battling over discipline had polarized them," said the counselor. "I had three goals for them: First, they had to learn to resolve the no-win arguments in which they were gridlocked. Second, they needed to understand that neither's approach to discipline was right or wrong. And third, they needed to figure out compromises both could live with. 'You can't achieve any of these goals when your conversations instantly disintegrate into fights,' I told them. 'You need to find ways to reconcile conflicting views before the discussion becomes incendiary.' It's not necessarily bad for kids to see their parents fight -- they can learn important relationship skills if their parents are able to resolve disagreements, make up and move on. But when kids sense their parents are losing control, they get frightened. 'When that starts to happen,' I advised them, 'call a time-out and resume the discussion when you're able to speak calmly.'

"People are often unaware of how much the home in which they grew up affects their parenting style. 'Different family backgrounds often trigger discipline battles,' I explained. 'And when partners become parents, they often discover facets of each other's personalities that are upsetting and disillusioning.' The fact that Erin and Jack became parents soon after marrying compounded the problem -- they had little time to discuss their philosophies of raising a child before having one. The addition of two more children so close in age added yet another layer of stress and fatigue. Soon, both were wondering, 'Who is this person I married? Is this what I signed on for?'

"We spent several sessions tracing the patterns. In Erin's large, boisterous family, for instance, discipline had been lackadaisical. Her mother meant well, but was controlling, making decisions for everyone. As a result Erin lacked confidence in her own choices. Her father's alcoholism, which she intuited, further shook her confidence. Children of alcoholics often subconsciously blame themselves, thinking, if I try harder or behave better, Daddy or Mommy won't drink. Even now, Erin hated to have anyone, including her children, upset with her. While she was blessed to have such a close family, she was too enmeshed with their lives. She allowed herself to be swayed by her mother's child-rearing methods instead of making joint decisions with Jack.

"We have different standards"

"Of course, recognizing influences on our behavior is not the same as actually changing that behavior. Still, over several months of exploring these ideas, this couple's mutual empathy grew and tension receded. Jack began to curb his sarcasm and think twice before issuing orders. They also realized the importance of being flexible. 'Erin has a point,' Jack conceded. 'If Max watches another half hour of TV, we'll have more time for just the two of us. Same with the junk food. As long as he's healthy, I need to back off.' Erin realized she had to stop condemning Jack's actions when he disciplined the children. She now regularly checks with him before approving one of Max's requests, to make sure Jack hasn't given their son a different answer. If she believes her husband's tone is too harsh, or a punishment inappropriate, they discuss it privately.

"Loosening her ties with her mother was harder for Erin. 'What would happen if you told your mother you disapproved of doughnuts for breakfast or her disregard for your rules?' I asked her. Erin thought for a moment, then smiled and admitted, 'Nothing would happen.' In time, she began to voice her concerns -- and her mother, taken aback at first, has listened.

"Erin and Jack have also learned that it's essential to pick their battles and allow the parent who feels most strongly about the issue at hand to make the rule. 'Jack cares about proper table manners,' Erin told me, 'so I've started to support him, even though I'm less concerned at this age.'

"Both agreed that Max's dawdling tried their patience, so together we devised a token system. Each time Max gets ready for bed within 15 minutes, he receives a ticket. When he accumulates five tickets, he can choose the dessert for the following evening or select an inexpensive toy. 'Max is bright and persistent and he'll always test you,' I noted. 'By spending time alone with him, each of you will gain a better understanding of his temperament and how to communicate with him.' Jack now makes a point of taking Max with him when he shops for groceries or picks up the dry-cleaning on weekends. 'Our time together is great,' Jack reported. 'Max really opens up.'

"Little by little, Erin and Jack realized that by being flexible and respectful of each other, they can always find a solution. The couple ended therapy after a year, but I still see them occasionally. 'We're definitely a work in progress,' said Erin, 'but Jack and I grow closer every day -- and our family life gets better and better.'"

The Counselor's Turn

Finding a Compromise

"This couple's deep love for each other was evident, but their constant battling over discipline had polarized them," said the counselor. "I had three goals for them: First, they had to learn to resolve the no-win arguments in which they were gridlocked. Second, they needed to understand that neither's approach to discipline was right or wrong. And third, they needed to figure out compromises both could live with. 'You can't achieve any of these goals when your conversations instantly disintegrate into fights,' I told them. 'You need to find ways to reconcile conflicting views before the discussion becomes incendiary.' It's not necessarily bad for kids to see their parents fight -- they can learn important relationship skills if their parents are able to resolve disagreements, make up and move on. But when kids sense their parents are losing control, they get frightened. 'When that starts to happen,' I advised them, 'call a time-out and resume the discussion when you're able to speak calmly.'

"People are often unaware of how much the home in which they grew up affects their parenting style. 'Different family backgrounds often trigger discipline battles,' I explained. 'And when partners become parents, they often discover facets of each other's personalities that are upsetting and disillusioning.' The fact that Erin and Jack became parents soon after marrying compounded the problem -- they had little time to discuss their philosophies of raising a child before having one. The addition of two more children so close in age added yet another layer of stress and fatigue. Soon, both were wondering, 'Who is this person I married? Is this what I signed on for?'

"We spent several sessions tracing the patterns. In Erin's large, boisterous family, for instance, discipline had been lackadaisical. Her mother meant well, but was controlling, making decisions for everyone. As a result Erin lacked confidence in her own choices. Her father's alcoholism, which she intuited, further shook her confidence. Children of alcoholics often subconsciously blame themselves, thinking, if I try harder or behave better, Daddy or Mommy won't drink. Even now, Erin hated to have anyone, including her children, upset with her. While she was blessed to have such a close family, she was too enmeshed with their lives. She allowed herself to be swayed by her mother's child-rearing methods instead of making joint decisions with Jack.

"Jack, by contrast, grew up in a home where his father ruled via criticism and strict proclamation. What Jack didn't recognize was that he was often as judgmental as his father had been and spoke with similar arrogance and anger. Jack appeared confident, but his need to be right and his unwillingness to truly listen to Erin belied his fear that unless he overpowered his wife with his views, he would be overpowered himself.

The Counselor's Turn, continued

"Of course, recognizing influences on our behavior is not the same as actually changing that behavior. Still, over several months of exploring these ideas, this couple's mutual empathy grew and tension receded. Jack began to curb his sarcasm and think twice before issuing orders. They also realized the importance of being flexible. 'Erin has a point,' Jack conceded. 'If Max watches another half hour of TV, we'll have more time for just the two of us. Same with the junk food. As long as he's healthy, I need to back off.' Erin realized she had to stop condemning Jack's actions when he disciplined the children. She now regularly checks with him before approving one of Max's requests, to make sure Jack hasn't given their son a different answer. If she believes her husband's tone is too harsh, or a punishment inappropriate, they discuss it privately.

"Loosening her ties with her mother was harder for Erin. 'What would happen if you told your mother you disapproved of doughnuts for breakfast or her disregard for your rules?' I asked her. Erin thought for a moment, then smiled and admitted, 'Nothing would happen.' In time, she began to voice her concerns -- and her mother, taken aback at first, has listened.

"Erin and Jack have also learned that it's essential to pick their battles and allow the parent who feels most strongly about the issue at hand to make the rule. 'Jack cares about proper table manners,' Erin told me, 'so I've started to support him, even though I'm less concerned at this age.'

"Both agreed that Max's dawdling tried their patience, so together we devised a token system. Each time Max gets ready for bed within 15 minutes, he receives a ticket. When he accumulates five tickets, he can choose the dessert for the following evening or select an inexpensive toy. 'Max is bright and persistent and he'll always test you,' I noted. 'By spending time alone with him, each of you will gain a better understanding of his temperament and how to communicate with him.' Jack now makes a point of taking Max with him when he shops for groceries or picks up the dry-cleaning on weekends. 'Our time together is great,' Jack reported. 'Max really opens up.'

"Little by little, Erin and Jack realized that by being flexible and respectful of each other, they can always find a solution. The couple ended therapy after a year, but I still see them occasionally. 'We're definitely a work in progress,' said Erin, 'but Jack and I grow closer every day -- and our family life gets better and better.'"

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Robin Newman, LCSW, a family psychotherapist in Huntington, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, September 2005.

 
shim