It’s a time-honored threat: “Just wait ’til your father comes home!” But these days, some believe that old threat has been turned on its head. Today’s dads, they say, are more likely to be the permissive ones, too intent on having fun with their kids; leaving all that unpleasant discipline to mom. It’s the Disneyland dad syndrome, without the divorce.
Author and parent educator Elizabeth Crary says she doesn’t believe that there are gender-specific styles of parenting. But the important thing, she says, is that parents often believe there are.
“I think parents often generalize — men are that way; women are that way — out of personal experience rather than wide experience,” she says.
A person’s temperament probably plays a bigger role in parenting style than gender, Crary says. “If a parent is very persistent, it’s easier to hold limits. If a parent is very sensitive to a child’s emotion, it’s harder.”
How were you raised?
Candyce Lund Bollinger, an Olympia parent educator, says parents often don’t recognize another key factor, which may be the biggest influence on their parenting style — how they themselves were parented. “It has to do with what happened in your family of origin, the family you grew up with,” she says. “If you really disliked having a disciplinarian dad, you might completely reverse and not have boundaries at all.”
Seattle mom Nancy Dunbar sees that phenomenon at work in her own home. “My husband’s father was a military guy, very strict. It never would have crossed his mind to question his dad.”
Dunbar, who has boys ages 14 and 9, and a 12-year-old daughter, says her husband tries — with little success — to be the tough disciplinarian with their kids. “He thinks that’s how it should be, but it doesn’t work for him,” she says. “He doesn’t have that in his character.” As a stay-at-home mom, Dunbar says, she has the advantage of more time with the kids. “When he steps into the picture, he’s playing catch-up. He has to hit it harder and louder.”
Portia Gray, a Seattle mom and copresident of the PTA at Seattle’s Catharine Blaine K–8 School, says her husband, who works from home, likes to be the one to lay down the law.
You don’t have to agree on everything, but you need to respect the other one’s decision ... Parents don’t have to parent the same way, but they do have to parent with the same goals.”
“He disciplines more like a dictatorship. I discipline with a ‘let’s see what works’ approach,” she says. Gray says her husband sometimes imposes unrealistic penalties to discipline their children. “I want to discipline them, but I want them to feel they can work their way out of it. It’s a ‘you respect me, I respect you’ approach.”
Gray looks back fondly on the unconditional love of her own dad and urges her husband to play that role for their 12-year-old daughter. “I tell him, ‘You need to just adore her; make her feel like the most special person in the world,’” she says.
Older kids, different problems
Gray and Dunbar agree that disciplining their children was more clear-cut when the kids were small—mostly a matter of teaching them to share and pick up their toys. With preteens and teens, the issues are more complex and the possible consequences of “bad” behaviors are worrisome. Both moms recognize that they and their husbands have different approaches to discipline, and try to keep communication lines open. “But when it comes down to it and all hell is breaking loose, it’s tough to stick to your guns,” Gray says.
Bollinger says that having different parenting styles isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. “I don’t encourage the united front. I don’t think parents need to be on the same page all the time,” she says, because kids confront different styles of discipline daily when they interact with teachers or friends’ parents. “When they go out into the word, there will be differences in values and rules, and they need to learn how to adapt to those differences.”
Bollinger says the problem comes when one parent becomes resentful of the other for being too rigid or too lenient. If one parent overdisciplines and the other underdisciplines to make up for it, the issue becomes more and more divisive. She often counsels strict disciplinarians to back off and allow the other parent to step up to the plate.
Crary urges parents to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and take them into account when raising their children. “Men, in general, are more willing to let children take risks than women are,” she says. “I would defer to my husband on that because I know that about myself.”
It will take many discussions over many years to work through parenting conflicts, Crary says. The big challenge is to work out common values, to get some sense of what they want their child to be like in five or 10 years. Then, they can look at how they can support those values. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to agree on everything, but you need to respect the other one’s decision.’ People are all different. Parents don’t have to parent the same way, but they do have to parent with the same goals.”