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You Say No, He Says Yes

5 big discipline issues that divide moms and dads  -- and how to work them out


It was one of those moments when I wondered how men and women could ever live together, much less raise kids. My husband had just sent our 3-year-old to her room for a "long time-out" because she, disobeying his warning, had unrolled toilet paper across the living room (the puppy then chewed it up and, yes, it was a big mess). I knew that a long time-out was too much for any 3-year-old, especially at the end of the day. So I went up and cuddled my crying daughter, who promptly fell asleep. But when I came downstairs, my husband insisted I'd pulled the rug out from under him (I had). We slept on opposite ends of the bed that night.

I knew becoming a mom was going to change my relationship with my husband. Still, like many parents, I'm surprised that my arguments center on the kids. Such hot-button issues as whether to let the baby sleep in your bed or which behavior deserves a time-out can cause squabbles between the most compatible of spouses. We rounded up some of the top problems parents confront  -- and answers on how to reconcile differing viewpoints:

Seeing Eye-to-Eye

You don't see eye to eye on a fundamental issue.

"For the first year, our son, Peter, slept in our bed with us. But now that my husband really wants him out of the bed, I don't  -- I've gotten used to the three of us all close and snuggly together."

—Sharon Olds, Cornwall, Connecticut

Solution: The most important piece of advice: Don't try to resolve this dilemma at 3 a.m., when both of you are sleep-deprived and annoyed. Wait until daylight and talk it over when bedtime is far away enough that there's no pressure to come to a conclusion quickly. Your decision will affect your nights for at least the next several months, so don't be hasty.

Whenever you find yourselves dealing with such a basic issue, you have to figure out the "why" behind your positions. Does your husband have a deeply held belief influencing his preference ("It's healthier for children to learn how to sleep on their own") or is it a matter of practicality ("I have trouble sleeping with a squirmy baby in the bed")? Or are you the one whose stance is based on a particular parenting philosophy?

If it's purely a matter of comfort, it should be pretty easy to come up with a compromise that will satisfy both of you. If you have a difference of belief, though, each of you will have to work a little harder. You may simply need to explain that this is something you think is crucial for your baby's well-being  -- maybe he just didn't understand this. Or perhaps there are articles or books that could explain the basis for your views.

But whether it's your argument or his that ultimately holds sway, you'll have to back up your view with action. So if you decide to go with your husband's preference, he should take an active part in the transition, says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of What to Expect the First Year and a Parenting contributing editor. "That means when the baby wakes up crying in his crib, it's not fair if Dad makes you do most of the work. He has to get up too, either to comfort you or to go into the other room to soothe your child."

Big Pushover

You're a pushover.

"I know I'm not decisive enough in disciplining our kids. I've been known to say to my three-year-old, 'Quit standing on the counter,' without doing anything about it. This forces my husband to step in, no matter what. It's a real source of friction."

—Mary McKay, West Lafayette, Indiana

Solution: Most families have one parent who's more of an enforcer than the other, because of either temperament or philosophy. And there is, of course, room for different parenting styles. But the discipline gap shouldn't be so big that one parent starts to resent the other or worries that the kids' safety is in jeopardy. A preschooler standing on a counter isn't merely a matter of inappropriate behavior  -- it's also dangerous.

That's probably where a pushover and her partner should start: with safety issues. Talk when the children aren't around and agree on house rules that even a conciliatory parent can follow. Then, if a child's behavior is harmful  -- to either himself or another person  -- just swoop in and end it (and ignore the tears). There's no need for discussion or warning.

For lesser infractions, the risk isn't to anyone's health but to your authority as a parent. Not enforcing limits can teach a child that his actions have no consequences when you're around. "There's nothing wrong with giving a warning before lowering the boom, but when you do give one to your child, follow through on it," says Wendy Masi, Ph.D., dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

After you and your husband have decided which matters warrant zero tolerance in your house, review some other types of behavior and decide what degree of action they'll be met with. What if the behavior endangers an object or a piece of furniture? What if it's merely rude or annoying? With issues like these, there's more room for differing styles, and you may just have to agree to disagree. But you should strive for consistency within the house so as not to confuse your child.

A good policy that's worked for many parents: You and your husband can agree that whenever you're in opposition about a rule, the one who cares the most about the situation gets to make the call. For instance, if he's strongly anti-feet-on-the-couch and you're not but see his point, decide that you'll both enforce that. While you're at it, though, you might also get him to concede that something else he sees as an infraction  -- such as slouching at the table  --is really not worth getting worked up about. So pick your battles.

That said, both of you have to agree on the consequences too. And remember, if you're going to come down hard on your preschooler when he puts his shoes on the couch, then you won't have a lot of ammunition left when he bonks his sister on the head with a wooden block.

Get With the Program

You aren't both with the program.

"My husband tends to get our son involved in a computer game about ten minutes before it's time for him to go to sleep. He then gets huffy when I remind him politely that it's past David's bedtime."

—Rosemary Heath, New York City

Solution: The first thing you should do is refrain from discussing this until after you've hustled your child off to sleep. You don't want to start an argument that will delay bedtime even further and let your son know that this is a cool way to play his parents against each other whenever he doesn't want to hit the hay.

When you do settle down to discuss the situation, try to be positive instead of criticizing. In this case, you might begin by acknowledging your mate's good intentions  -- that he wants to spend time playing with his son. But also let him know you don't want to play the heavy every night in order to get your child to bed on time. (For tips on how other moms have kept their discussions civil, see "How Do You Keep Fights From Heating Up?") Next  -- and this may sound obvious, but it's often neglected  -- make sure you agree on when bedtime should be. If you've decided this together, then it's not you against him. It's both of you working toward the same goal. The next step: Nail down the evening routine, to decide that your son will have books or a computer game at 8:00 every night, with toothbrushing and lights-out to follow at 8:30, let's say.

The point is that no matter what the topic is  -- whether it's getting ready for bed, preparing for school in the morning, or doing chores on the weekends  -- you and your partner need to agree on the big picture before you settle on the details. The little things will fall into place once you're seeing eye to eye on the major issues.

Butting In

You butt in when he disciplines the kids.

"I feel my children should be allowed to reason their way through certain situations, but my husband thinks that 'no' should mean 'no,' without any discussion. Sometimes I can't help myself from trying to get in my two cents between him and the kids. That's when things blow up."

—Ann Hunt, Freeport, Maine

Solution: You have to learn to hold back. (At least during the incident itself. Later, when the kids aren't around, you can discuss what it is that you don't agree on.) Unless your husband is being abusive, you shouldn't intervene if it wasn't your battle to begin with, say experts. Undermining him could make it hard for him to discipline next time, and it sends the kids a strange message about parental authority.

Setting Similar Standards

Your standards aren't the same.

"Our two-year-old, Leah, was washing her hands and got water all over the counter and floor. My husband got upset with me for letting her make a mess."

—Jennifer Shelamer, Alachua, Florida

Solution: Of course you and your partner need to be consistent, but you also must be fair. You can expect your 5-year-old to wash her hands with a minimum of spills, but a 2-year-old is incapable of doing this without being sloppy.

That doesn't mean you can't let your child help mop up the puddles with a paper towel or a sponge. This shouldn't be a punishment but a way of helping her learn that messes should be cleaned up by the person who made them. "Even if she doesn't do a spit 'n' polish job, she'll get satisfaction out of it, and she'll start to get the point," says Murkoff. It may also mollify a mate with different standards of household cleanliness.

Before the neater of you is reduced to a scrubbing, wiping, mopping robot, you should find a few easy ways to help him  -- or you  -- feel in control of the clutter and spills that are a natural accompaniment to life with children. You obviously can't say, "I can live with this disorder and you can't, so clean it up if it bothers you," but you can recognize that there are some tasks he'll take on because not doing so will drive him crazy. And you should also agree that you'll go the extra mile on a few things  -- like putting your bras either in the drawer or in the hamper instead of hanging them on the doorknob  -- just because they bug the man you love.

The fact that you each have different parenting styles is okay for the children. They'll end up acting a little differently around each of you, but that's only natural.

After the toilet paper/time-out fight, my husband and I talked and made up. It helps to remember that raising kids is a process, and it's unreasonable to think that it'll never be messy. Chances are, the two of you (like the two of us) are both motivated by the same things  -- among others, your love for your child, your desire for her to behave reasonably at home and grow up to be a law-abiding adult  -- even if you act on those motivations differently. It's not a matter of right or wrong. After all, children all over the world have all different kinds of parents, and the vast majority turn out just fine.

  Carolyn Hoyt's last article for Parenting was "Nurturing Creativity," in the December/January 2002 issue.