As a parent, how many times have you heard the phrase “But Mom/Dad said I could” after telling your child “no”? Adolescents and teens alike are suspiciously well-adept at the art of manipulation. No, that doesn’t mean that your child is some kind of sociopath- it’s what they are supposed to do!
Children develop healthy identities and values by pushing the limits; this enables them to identify and distinguish between right and wrong. That being said, witnessing your child test the waters can be infuriating. Not to mention the sinking feeling of wondering if your spouse is even on the same planet as you are when it comes to discipline. Presenting a united front is one of the most important lessons to learn when disciplining your child, especially when they are young.
Because little ones are typically black-and-white thinkers, children around the age of six and under are easily confused when only one parent enforces the rules or if consequences differ between each parent. Six year olds do not do well with mixed messages! This black-and-white thinking leads them to the conclusion that one parent is “right/good” and the other is “wrong/bad”. In a home where children constantly hear the phrase “just wait until your father gets home”, who do you think the bad guy is? What about a home where Dad is only about playtime and Mom is the only one to enforce rules or consequences? No parent wishes their child to favor one parent over the other, but it’s only natural for a little one to pick playtime parent over time-out parent. Think about it- if a two year old can figure out that screaming in public can get her that giant cookie, then you can bet a six year old knows which parent will be more likely to give her what she wants, when she wants it. Fortunately for me, my parents learned this lesson pretty quickly… my attempts at pitting my parents against one another in order to get what I wanted worked for about a week before they put an end to it.
As for older children, the importance of being a team in the discipline arena becomes less about presenting a united front and more about modeling appropriate ways to handle disagreements. Imagine this scenario:
Teenaged daughter: “Mom can I go to the party at Sarah’s tonight?”
Mom: “Sure honey.”
Dad (simultaneously with mom): “No way.”
What typically happens next? Mom and Dad erupt at each other in front of the daughter? Daughter begins frantically negotiating? Mom and daughter team up against Dad? If this all sounds familiar, here’s what I have to say: Do NOT miss this opportunity! This is your chance to show your child that you two are a team- teammates may disagree but they strive to work together for the win.
By presenting a united front when it comes to discipline, you’re one step closer to ensuring that your child will not only grow up knowing that Mom and Dad can’t be manipulated, but also being witness to healthy communication habits. The last thing the two of you need is a six year old who’s scared of the one parent who enforces consequences or a teenager who knows (or thinks he knows) how to work the system.