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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

When Parents Disagree on Discipline

Here's a common scenario seen very frequently by psychologists and pediatricians. . Mom and dad bring in one or several of their children. They are dissatisfied with the children's behavior, particularly at home. (Often the children act wonderfully with other people!) At home, however, the children fight, fuss, and don't follow directions. Their behavior may be worse with the mother and, out of sheer frustration and desperation, she may resort to the strategy, "Wait 'til your dad gets home." However, this creates even more guilt and anguish in mom. She feels that a gentle and understanding approach with children is best; dad blames mom for the children's problems and believes they are not being punished enough. "I was spanked when I was a child," dad often says, "and I turned out okay!" In such cases as this, the marriage becomes consumed by the children's behavior and the parents have little time for each other.

I'm not a believer in hitting kids as a way of teaching good behavior or controlling poor behavior. Dad probably would have turned out okay even if other approaches than spanking had been used with him. The lesson that kids learn from being spanked is a poor one and the approach usually is just a temporary solution to the problem.

How do parents solve the dilemma of very different approaches to discipline? First, the parents must agree on what they realistically expect for their children. And this is based on the children's age, their temperament, their ability to follow directions, and the structure of the family. Discipline is far easier with one child than with three, for example. Furthermore, a two year old usually has a hard time sitting through thirty minutes of dinner without the need to get up. Compromise may be critical to the parents agreeing on what they want for their children: doing homework independently, cleaning up after themselves, saying "Yes, sir" and "Yes, m'am", following directions quickly, not talking back, etc. The parents should come to some meeting of the minds on what values are highest priority for each and on which behaviors they both agree are important to nurture in their children. The parents should then support each other in this quest.

As it often turns out, the mother makes most of the decisions for and with the children. She gets them up, dressed and fed in the morning, oversees homework, gets them ready for bed, supervises play and play arrangements for after school and weekends. Therefore, there are more opportunities for mom and child to have conflicts. The challenge to the mother is to use approaches that will work: incentives, restriction, time out, cooperative activities. These are all described fully on the audiotape mentioned earlier, in some excellent books, and at lectures that often are offered for free in many communities. In any case, the primary caregiver should be able to control the behavior of the children using traditional and some creative approaches to behavior management without resorting to corporal punishment. The agreement between parents should be:

  • We will be consistent. That is, whatever we decide on, we both will use the same approaches when the children are with us.
  • We will never argue in the front of the children about disagreements in discipline approaches.
  • We will start with approaches that don't involve physical, verbal, or emotional abuse. We agree that discipline should not involve hurting our children. We will try these approaches consistently for several weeks before considering other more punitive approaches.
  • We will use systematic approaches that seem to have worked for others in the past. Therefore, we must be willing to talk to other people who have had similar problems, listen to and read materials that can teach us better ways to handle our children, and attend lectures that might help us and answer some of our questions.
Most children require structure, routine, and predictability. Often, just making small changes in the way you run your home and interact with your children will yield dramatic changes in their behavior. While you can take pride in the wonderful changes you see, beware that there are challenges waiting around every corner with children. This is what makes parenthood as satisfying and enjoyable as it is challenging; the wonderful changes in your children make you feel so good!

written by child developmental specialist Warren Umansky, Ph.D. who writes the Hot Parenting Topic for the Behavior/Parenting-based website Webehave.Com and posted on 08-12-04


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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