Imagine you came to a traffic light that flickered red-orange-green-red-orange-green. You’d probably be confused (Should I go or stop!?), and possibly anxious (What if I crash? I may be stuck here forever!).
The same process is likely to happen to our children if they receive mixed signals from their primary caregivers. Just like the faulty robot in the example leaves it up to you to decide when it’s safe to go, your child will also need to figure it out on her own. And “crashing” may be the result.
All of us hate red lights (Just my luck!), but there’s nothing like the stress caused by a broken traffic light to make us appreciate a light turning red when it needs to. There’s safety in this mechanism. Likewise, there’s protection in receiving clear-cut messages at home – even if it’s “no!”
The principle of unity in parenting is important for any family, but especially crucial where parents live apart or where other parties (like grandparents or nannies) do a significant part of the care-giving. In these cases, the child might already experience conflict (Whom should I listen to?), but if everyone sings from the same sheet, it will simplify the matter.
How to get everyone on the same page? Through conversation, compromise, contract and commitment.
Everything begins with care-givers having a decent talk to determine where the boundaries should fall. Determine the rules and values you desire in your family and distinguish these from mere preferences.
To clarify: Rules function to protect the individual and others from various kinds of harm and to prevent injustice. For example, appropriate bedtimes protect small children against self-destruction, wearing seat belts keep them physically safe, not swearing at people shields everyone emotionally. Cleaning up prevents the unfairness of having others do your dirty work. And so forth. Breaking rules should have agreed-upon consequences.
Values, on the other hand, are noble principles to live by. It’s good manners to greet others, say thank you and share, and if they don’t learn these social norms, they will soon discover the natural consequences of rudeness . Care-givers should teach these using mostly replacement behaviours, modeling politeness and respect for others in their own lives, and using praise and/or incentive tools to reinforce these positive behaviours.
Lastly, preferences are strong feelings parents have on certain topics, but which are ultimately not related to right or wrong. Examples include, “No singing at the dinner table” or “No eating in my car”. This last category is something caretakers can disagree on. Where caregivers live apart, different customs may exist between homes. Just make sure the child understands that mommy still respects (which is a good value) granny’s way of doing things, but that she chooses to operate differently, and these alternatives are not “right” or “wrong” in essence, purely preference.
What if co-parents don’t agree on rules or values? It helps to think of these things in relation to whether it is character related or not. Character related issues (such as shouting at my father or hitting or sister) is non-negotiable. Whereas non-character related issues (such as eating with your fingers sometimes or putting your feet up on the coach) has room for negotiation. If you get stuck, it may be wise to invite an independent mediator to join the conversation (e.g. a pastor, family psychologist or Munchkins parenting coach). It is worthwhile to spend time and money on “ fixing a dangerous traffic light” for your child’s sake! And be prepared – the process will inevitably involve a give-and-take. Which brings us to the next point…
If we are serious about unity in parenting, a healthy dose of compromise is necessary – whether we are married to the other parent or not! We may need to slack in our convictions (e.g. allowing 30 minutes daily screen time for a toddler while we prefer none) or adopt rules we’re not keen on (e.g. no sweet treats on week days although we so love seeing those chocolatey smiles).
Again, keep in mind that where issues are not crucial for protection or moral upbringing, respectful disagreeing may exist and we need to release our children to experience the other caregiver’s ways without an attitude of superiority. Comments such as, “Your mother is allowed to have a filthy house, but I won’t permit feet on my furniture!” still force children to decide whether Mom or Dad is “right” instead of seeing them as merely “different”, which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for a child.
Write down the collaboratively-chosen rules and values of your family. If a mediator was used, involve him or her in drawing up the contract to ensure it’s reasonable and to prevent manipulation. A contract needs to be adapted as children age or situations change.
Where parents live apart or grandparents live on your property, such a document is really important. Consider signing it with a witness present to add weight to the matter.
Keeping a united front (especially in our partners’ absence) will only happen if we are truly committed to the process – for our children’s sake. Never play good cop/bad cop or blame and badmouth a parenting partner even if they “deserve” it. It is destructive to our children and is therefore selfish. When conflict arises, sort it out as adults, privately.
For those who are still wedded, never argue about parenting in front of the children. They need to feel safe in your undivided unity. It is better for their psychological and emotional well-being for the decision to be united albeit unfair or stupid than it is for you to be divided and they get what they want.
Remember: Green. Orange. Red. It keeps us alive!
The journey of becoming and remaining unified as parents is not an easy one. Munchkins is here to assist families in need – book a session with one of our team members.
If you have five minutes, get ideas on how to keep your marriage (and family) a happy one.