My husband, Jason, and I linger at the dinner table, trying to ignore the fight brewing over Yu-Gi-Oh! cards in the next room. Eli, 8, has "borrowed" his older brother Milo's prized Exodia Necros card, and Milo wants it back. When polite requests fail, Milo, 10, resorts to arm-twisting -- literally. Eli howls.
"Milo, to your room, now!" Jason bellows as he stomps into the family room.
"Wait, can't we first have Eli recognize that this wouldn't have happened if he'd just given the card back?" I ask, chasing after him.
"We can do it after the time-out," says Jason.
"But the teachable moment is now," I insist.
"The teachable moment is going to have to wait till after the time-out," he says.
Look who's fighting now -- and in front of the kids.
Conventional advice is that parents should present a united front when it comes to discipline. But, as many couples know, this isn't always how things go. Many discuss, debate, and just plain argue about discipline, which is okay.
When you disagree about something, each of you has a chance to air your attitudes and approaches, which helps you hear each other's viewpoints more fully. More important, "it can lead to a better, more thoughtful resolution," says Anthony Wolf, Ph.D., author of "Mom, Jason's Breathing on Me!" In other words, disagreements about what to do when the kids misbehave can lead to well-considered rules and consequences for breaking them that seem fair to everyone.
But not every childhood crime will have an agreed-upon punishment in place at the time it's committed. That's when the grown-ups may find themselves publicly at odds, and that's not necessarily bad, provided you do it properly (more on that in a minute). "Your child will see that issues have two sides, and both should be listened to," says Michele Borba, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Beyond that, she can learn the art of negotiation, compromise, and peacemaking."
So, your child can actually glean these lessons from seeing her parents face off; you just need to follow some ground rules. (But keep in mind that a child under 3 1/2 won't be able to take away anything positive from watching Mommy and Daddy bicker. With a little kid, you should take it outside -- or at least into the next room. If that's not possible, just stow it until later when she's asleep.)
Janet Siroto is the editor-in-chief of Happen, an online dating and relationships magazine.
Ground rule: Agree to hear each other out in front of the kids.
Much as you may believe that you're absolutely, positively right (and your spouse has lost all perspective), it's important that you both get to present your opinions fully. No interrupting with cries of "You are so wrong!" allowed.
Adhering to basic debate-club principles is how things work in the New Haven, Connecticut, home of Barrie Dolnick, mom of Elisabeth, 6 -- especially when it comes to television watching. "My husband, Gary, and I disagree strongly about it. I grew up watching it, and I think there's nothing wrong with it. But he's a neuroscientist and can't stand the idea of Elisabeth watching more than a drop of PBS," she says. So when Barrie rewards Elisabeth with TV, Gary inevitably steps up with his viewpoint: "Basically, I make the case that TV is garbage, and reading is so much better for you," he says. Barrie then states her side of the issue, and from there they work out how much Elisabeth can watch.
"We've agreed not to let the debate get heated, though," says Barrie. "And I actually like that we discuss this in front of her. It helps make her a critical thinker; she knows that people can have strongly opposing views and still get along. One day she told a friend: 'My dad doesn't want me to watch TV. He says books are better for the brain. How about yours?'"
Ground rule: Develop tiebreaker tactics for when you get seriously deadlocked.
One good strategy: Find ways to make each parent a primary decision maker, part of the time. "My husband is a total soft touch," says Janis Mysona of San Francisco, mom of Hannah, 13, and Abby, 10. "He works long hours, and when he comes home, all the rules tend to go right out the window. It would be way past Abby's bedtime and I'd find David and her cuddled up in the family room, watching TV. I'd have to break up the lovefest and order her off to bed. David would jump in with 'But I've barely seen her all week, and we're having such a good time.'"
After months of battles, during which Janis felt like the household killjoy, they came up with a plan to bring the situation under control. They decided that, by and large, Janis would call the shots on weekdays, and David would rule the roost on the weekends. "He's got a long wick, and that's fine on the weekends. I'm the disciplinarian, and that's what's needed on weeknights. Now that we've agreed who's calling the shots when, we pretty much know where things are heading and don't get into big blowouts over 'Yes, she can stay up another twenty minutes,' or 'No, she can't.'"
Other ways to deal with stalemates: Agree to let the parent who feels most passionately about the issue at hand have the last word. Or defer to the parent who swooped in on the touchy situation first. But make sure each of you has some victories under your respective belts. If one parent always wins or dominates, the system isn't serving you well.
Ground rule: Know how to shut things down if tempers do flare.
Of course, no one wants a discussion about the best punishment for Play-Doh jammed into the DVD player to devolve into a screaming match. But sooner or later there will probably be a discipline "debate" that threatens to spin out of control in front of your child. And if that happens, not only are you giving your child an education in how to lose it, you also run the risk of having her think she's to blame.
It's time to take it down a notch when your voices get an edge to them, you start making derogatory comments, it's clear things are about to escalate, or your child's getting upset. Three parent-tested tactics for when it's best to hash it out in private:
Use a code word. "One of us will say 'pas devant,' which is French for 'not in front of'..." says Dolnick. "Then we tell Elisabeth, 'Mom and Dad need to discuss this in private, and we'll get back to you with our decision.'"
Give him the hairy eyeball. "When Dave starts telling me to lighten up, I give him The Look -- okay, you might call it a glare," says Mysona. "He knows it means, 'You know where we stand on this; it's not up for debate.'"
Walk away. "When I don't want to lose it, I go into the yard or the bathroom, where I break the tension. Nothing gets resolved until I come back and am ready to talk it through," says Mercy Eelman, a mom of two, in Westfield, New Jersey.
Will this hashing-it-out discipline style work for you? Much will depend on the kind of partners you are. The night of the Yu-Gi-Oh! card-snatching incident, a big part of me wished our family had ironclad house rules. But instead, we debated the situation for a few minutes, and I somewhat reluctantly let my husband decide the consequences. (His winning foray? "Okay, let's not have a time-out. Instead, let's reinforce that bickering over cards is a fantastic way for our family to spend the evening.")
Our discipline style pretty much reflects who we are as a couple and a family: two very different people who know that, with a little negotiation and just a touch of sarcasm, we can work out just about anything. And there's nothing wrong with our kids seeing that.