When Parents Disagree
What I’m about to say flies in the face of nearly everything you’ve ever heard on the subject of how to handle disagreements between parents. But it’s my blog and my life and I can do that when I see fit, right? And on the topic of how parents should handle disagreements between them, I have no problem saying that the standard advice is horrid and wrong.
So, no doubt you have heard many times that while you and your partner may have disagreements when it comes to parenting, it is important that you present a unified front to your kids. Which is, if I may be so bold as to say this, utter bullshit. And if you take it too far, it can be damaging to your kids to boot. Allow I to explain.
No two people will ever agree on everything. And inevitably when dealing with something as challenging and complex as parenting, sharp disagreements will arise. This is reality. And unless reality is so ugly that it would traumatize your children, you are never doing any favors to your kids when you hide reality from them. At some point they are going to have to head out into the world and find their way. So they need to have some idea of what they will be dealing with and some idea of how they can manage.
Pretending that you and your spouse are in total agreement when it comes to parenting is nothing more than hiding reality from your children. And it’s totally unnecessary.
The reason which is always given for the advice that in front of your kids, you should always present a united front is that if you don’t, your kids will play you off of each other. However, that’s just not the case. It is entirely possible to be transparent about the fact that you disagree without opening yourself up to manipulation by your kids.
For example, my husband and I always disagreed about how much and what sort of media our kids should have access to. I was of the opinion that they should have very little access to any media and that what media they did engage with should be mostly educational. My husband was of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with plopping a kid down with whatever movie, video game or other form of media would keep them engaged for the longest. So we were working from opposite ends of the issue.
Our kids were well aware of this. They heard our discussions on the matter and knew that they had a much better chance of gaining access to a movie, TV show or video game when dad made the decision than when I did. Which, if we had been the sort of immature people who have to have our way all of the time would have left us open to manipulation and our kids being able to create conflict between us for their own purposes. However, we were both well past adolescence when we had children, so this was never a problem.
Instead of hiding our disagreement, we each learned to stretch our boundaries. And we ceded power to each other in the decision making process. Very often, when our kids would ask to watch something, we would say, “I would say ‘yes/no’, but your father/mother might have other ideas. Go ask him/her what he/she thinks.” This way we gave the other person the chance to override our own inclinations. And we each knew that if we did so, the other would take that as the final decision.
If I said that the kids couldn’t watch Terminator even though my husband thought it would be fine, they knew it was pointless to go back to dad in hopes of getting their way. Once I said no, the best they were going to get from him was, “if it were up to me, I would let you watch it, but your mom isn’t comfortable with that, so it’s not going to happen.”
As parents, we don’t need to pretend to always agree with each other. We just need to back each other up once a line has been drawn. One many occasions I have told my kids outright, “I do not agree with your father on this. I understand why you are upset about it. I would be upset too. But this is something that is important to your father and so you’re just going to have to learn to live with it. That’s life. There are always going to be rules and problems we don’t like and would like to change. And sometimes you just need to suck it up and go along with it anyways.”
I think this is so much healthier for all of us than the usual advice to have your disagreements behind closed doors. It lets the kids know that even people who love each other disagree. It lets them know that it’s OK to not insist on having your way all of the time – even when you think you’re right. It also allows them to peak into what it looks like when two people don’t agree. How to have an argument that is productive and not destructive. How to deal with disagreements that you can’t reach agreement on. Heck, just the fact that it lets them know that sometimes you aren’t going to be able to reach agreement is a really important thing for kids to know.
Of course, if you and your spouse are not capable of engaging in disagreements without it devolving into destructive arguments, your kids don’t need a front row seat to that. And you need to find a good therapist to work with right away. The grown ups do need to be mature enough to disagree without it devolving into a power struggle or a fist fight.
One of the hardest parts of living in relationship with other people is always going to be how to handle disagreements. Particularly intractable disagreements. When parents refuse to allow their kids to see them disagreeing out of some foolish fear of being manipulated, we leave them very ill equipped to handle this part of living in relationship with other people.
Plus, being able to openly disagree with each other takes a lot of strain off our marriage. I can’t imagine having to pretend to agree with something that I disagreed with and not having some amount of resentment towards my husband for it. If a marriage doesn’t have room for each person to be who they truly are, what’s the point? Marriage isn’t supposed to be suffocating and require us to pretend to be someone other than who we really are. And when you have to agree to fake your approval of things you don’t actually approve of, matters of disagreement become matters of power and winning and losing. Which is never a healthy dynamic in a marriage.
When you can openly disagree with your spouse, you are actually modeling the sort of respect that keeps relationships healthy. It means you are willing to put the other person’s desires above your own. It means you trust their judgment even when you disagree with them. And it means you trust them to return the favor.
Of course, not all disagreements are so benign as what sort of movies a kid is allowed to watch. Sometimes there are serious issues at play which will require you to openly take a stand against what your partner is doing. For example, if your partner is engaging in abusive behavior or making decisions which have the potential for long term damage to your child, you have an absolute obligation to do whatever you need to do to stop that, even if it means putting your marriage at risk to do so.
Call the police, remove yourself and the child from the home, put the family in therapy, kick the other parent out until they commit to changing. Whatever it takes, our kids need and deserve to have parents who will not allow them to be destroyed like that. God hates divorce, but if you are party to harming a child, your best bet is to tie a millstone around your neck and jump into some deep water.
I have known way too many people who were brought up in homes where someone who was abusive, unstable or malicious was given free reign while the other parent remained quiet out of a sense of obligation or loyalty. The damage done in these settings can stay with a person well into adulthood and can often never be entirely undone. And as important as marriage is, that sort of collateral damage is never an acceptable price to pay.
Hopefully you aren’t in the sort of situation which calls for such drastic measures. But if you aren’t even allowed to have open disagreements over smaller issues, it’s going to be that much harder to know how to handle these sorts of big problems should they ever arise. So, go ahead and toss that nonsense about presenting your kids with a united front.