When Eastside parent coach Jennifer Watanabe works with parents, she uses the metaphor of a rope. Think of each parent holding one end of the rope, she tells them. The strength of the rope is in the middle, just as the strength of a relationship is in the middle.
As most parents with preschoolers know, discipline issues often come up when we are at the end of our rope. A son screams because he cannot have his sister’s toy. A daughter pushes her friend into the coffee table. A child throws a tantrum in the deli line. There is a gamut of possible reactions, and we all know it is hard enough to keep our own cool. But the even bigger trick, say experts, is for parents to be on the same page when coping with these mini-crises.
A divided front
Tracy Tomasi, a Seattle mother of 3-year-old twins, has been working hard to get her son Owen to quit whining. “I won’t acknowledge what he wants when he uses that voice,” she says. “I will tell him that we don’t use that voice or that I will answer him when he uses a different voice.” But when her husband, Joe, returns home from work and gives in to Owen’s whining, Tracy says she is beside herself. “I tell him that he’s just undone everything I’ve done to stop the whiny voice; it’s like going backwards.”
So how can parents find the middle of that rope? “Each person first needs to recognize who the other person is” and recognize each other’s differences, says Watanabe. Some spouses might be more play-oriented; others, more schedule-oriented, she says. Some might hold anger inside; others may subscribe to the controversial belief that spanking is good for even young toddlers.
Certain differences may be cultural, writes best-selling author and pediatrician T. Berry Brazleton. “One of the most powerful revelations for two parents raising a child together is the discovery of each other’s pasts — how each was raised by their own parents.” But, Brazleton writes in his book Discipline: The Brazleton Way, “One of the biggest challenges such parents face is how to reconcile differences in their past experiences and current ideas about discipline.”
Seeking positive solutions
Many of today’s parents were raised in households where spanking was a common, accepted form of punishment. Linda Chase, a longtime preschool teacher in West Seattle, says there may be times, especially during stressful situations, where a parent will “revert to the way they themselves were raised.” But there are also parents who have consciously decided they do not want their children to go through what they went through, either physically or emotionally.
Considering the child’s self-esteem may help guide parents in resolving their differences. “The underlying philosophy to consider with the discipline technique is whether the child will be humiliated or uplifted,” according to Vicky Smith, a parent educator for 20 years in the co-op preschool at South Seattle Community College. If a child is hurt or belittled, it damages their self-esteem, she says. Smith believes the results of that kind of punishment are long term, often showing up in later years as depression or aggressive behavior.
Serious problems, particularly those involving parental violence, should be handled by professional counselors. Assuming that is not a part of the conversation, many couples having trouble finding that common ground might benefit from a parenting plan, says Watanabe. For instance, if one parent wants to better control their own temper, they could use cue cards that they carry with them or post on the refrigerator. Watanabe says something as simple as a card that reads “Take a deep breath” or “Remember the plan” can diffuse anger in the heat of the moment.
Nolan Thom of Seattle says he and his wife’s discipline techniques are usually the same — except when it comes to tone of voice and word choice with 4-year-old Kayley. Nolan says his tact is to try to be more positive, distracting his daughter from whatever is upsetting her. His wife’s approach may be more to the point, but can sometimes sound negative: “You don’t want to be doing that, do you?”
The couple is very careful, though, to discuss their differences out of Kayley’s earshot. “We don’t want her to hear our own disagreements,” says Thom. That united front is key, writes Brazleton, because, “Children are bound to sense any disagreements and will test them.” Chase adds that both parents need to remember that there is no such thing as a “perfect” parent. “If you’re doing well 50 percent of the time, that is good parenting,” she says.
Watanabe says a child benefits from seeing that her parents value and treasure each other’s differences. “The true genius is that the child also recognizes that they are allowed to be who they are.”
Hilary Benson is a Mercer Island–based writer. She is married and the mother of three boys.