"We Can't Agree on Disciplining Our Kids"

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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.'"

Continued on page 4:  The Counselor's Turn


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