How do two in­di­vid­u­als par­ent as a team? Fam­ily Coach Jenny Hale gives her tips.

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How do in­di­vid­u­als par­ent as a team?

“Of course we will work as a team!” All cou­ples in­tend to work to­gether well in their par­ent­ing but most even­tu­ally ad­mit it is a big­ger chal­lenge than they ex­pected. It is an even big­ger chal­lenge when par­ents live in dif­fer­ent houses or in a blended fam­ily sit­u­a­tion.

The main cause of the strug­gle is that you are dif­fer­ent from each other: you have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and tem­per­a­ments, and you were brought up dif­fer­ently. You will each have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the same sce­nario – of­ten shaped by what your own par­ents would have done; you think dif­fer­ently and so you ar­rive at dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions on what to do. They might not be right or wrong, just dif­fer­ent. Many of th­ese dif­fer­ences could be eas­ily re­solved if cou­ples talked about the sit­u­a­tions be­fore they arose but the na­ture of par­ent­ing is that new, un­ex­pected things pop up all the time. We must re­spond be­fore we can con­fer with each other and so find our­selves at odds.

There are a num­ber of com­mon and tricky is­sues that most fam­i­lies en­counter at some stage. The great news is that th­ese is­sues can be ad­dressed and changes made that af­fect the whole fam­ily and im­prove the at­mos­phere in the house­hold. Th­ese changes work in what­ever fam­ily shape you find your­self. It is a mat­ter of learn­ing what ‘lit­tle dances’ are go­ing on and how to work in tan­dem, not in op­po­si­tion.

Dad says ‘No’ and Mum says ‘Yes’

One par­ent makes a de­ci­sion and the other par­ent, of­ten egged on by the child, dis­putes that de­ci­sion. You can see this ‘dance’ in the su­per­mar­ket: Dad has said “No” to the lol­lies but then Mum is ap­pealed to and she hes­i­tates. She would re­ally like to say “Yes” and is very tempted to over­rule a de­ci­sion she is not fully com­mit­ted to.

Chil­dren are great lit­tle re­searchers and soon dis­cover what they can gain by cre­at­ing a di­vi­sion be­tween Mum and Dad. Of­ten they

can get what they want and, even if they don’t, they can still erode parental author­ity if they can pro­voke an ar­gu­ment. This sit­u­a­tion is also likely to cause re­sent­ment in the par­ent who is be­ing over­ruled.

Of course you will have dif­fer­ent opin­ions from your part­ner in nu­mer­ous sit­u­a­tions but it is im­por­tant to back each other up. If it is only an is­sue of per­sonal pref­er­ence, set it aside and back your part­ner even if you don’t see the need to be that strict or that soft. Very rarely will the spe­cific is­sue be more im­por­tant than pre­sent­ing a har­mo­nious ‘united front’ to your child. Nat­u­rally, if the is­sue is likely to come up again, put your point of view to your part­ner out­side of ju­nior ear-shot.

2 The see-saw

This dance oc­curs when one par­ent tends to be strict, con­trol­ling and a bit on the harsh side and the other par­ent feels they have to be softer and more le­nient to com­pen­sate, or vice versa. They think, “If she is too hard on the kids, I have to be the soft one so that they are not scared”, or, “If he is too soft and in­dul­gent, then I have to bal­ance the books and be the dis­ci­plinar­ian”.

Both par­ents can feel forced into a style or par­ent­ing po­si­tion that they don’t re­ally want to be in. It is easy to feel re­sent­ful when forced to coun­ter­bal­ance your part­ner’s style of par­ent­ing.

There can be value in the ‘good cop, bad cop’ rou­tine but do al­ter­nate: it shouldn’t just be one par­ent who plays all the games and the other par­ent who al­ways has to pull them into line. Both par­ents should have times when they can re­lax and have fun with their kids; sim­i­larly, ei­ther par­ent should feel they could do ap­pro­pri­ate dis­ci­pline if nec­es­sary. Avoid get­ting stuck in roles by swap­ping them so that the stricter par­ent swaps with the more le­nient par­ent and does the things that that par­ent would nor­mally do and vice versa. You can learn from each other’s style: per­haps Mum could firm up and not res­cue the kids and Dad could be eas­ier and kin­der with his tone and man­ner. It’s fun and it helps each par­ent see things from a dif­fer­ent an­gle.

3 Switch­ing off

One par­ent can feel they are do­ing the lion’s share of the par­ent­ing while the other one sits by, ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous to what is go­ing on. When one par­ent seems to ab­di­cate and is no longer ‘emo­tion­ally present’ to help fol­low through with some­thing that the child has been asked to do, anger and frus­tra­tion can be the re­sult. Let’s give the less ac­tive par­ent the ben­e­fit of the doubt here: it is un­likely they don’t care, are un­will­ing to help or that they are bone idle; more likely they just don’t per­ceive the need to do any­thing. Again it is a ‘dif­fer­ence’ thing – usu­ally due to the ex­am­ples they saw dur­ing their own up­bring­ing or maybe some lin­ger­ing old-fash­ioned stereo­types about the roles of Mums and Dads.

Do stay tuned in. Both par­ents need to stay mind­ful of what is go­ing on and check in with each other as to what is needed. It can re­ally help if the par­ent who is not ini­ti­at­ing the re­quests for ac­tion from the child(ren) stays alert and can be vig­i­lant enough to step in firmly and gen­tly when the child is los­ing fo­cus or ig­nor­ing that par­ent. It would sound some­thing like: “Nathan, off you go, Love. I heard Dad ask you to get in your py­ja­mas as soon as you had fin­ished your turn on the com­puter.” And if you are the par­ent who is not feel­ing sup­ported, do try putting your wishes into spe­cific re­quests.

4 He/she is a twit!

Run­ning the other par­ent down can be done sub­tly or overtly. Eye rolling, sigh­ing and looks of “What on earth are you do­ing?” are pow­er­ful ways of un­der­min­ing author­ity – not just of your part­ner, but of both of you. Your child might join you in your contempt for your part­ner, or side with your part­ner against you; ei­ther way, dis­re­spect will not make your par­ent­ing any eas­ier.

Re­spect is a key thing to model to your chil­dren. Maybe you can see a much bet­ter way of do­ing some­thing. Maybe the other par­ent re­ally does not have your abil­ity to do good par­ent­ing. There is a time and a place to talk about th­ese things but it is prob­a­bly bet­ter to just com­pose your­self, hold your tongue and stop your sigh­ing when the kids are around!

5 Par­ent-to-child al­liance

Some of the fac­tors men­tioned above can some­times re­sult in a par­ent who feels closer to their child than to their part­ner. Maybe they have a need to be liked, needed or adored by

There can be value in ‘ the good cop, bad cop’ rou­tine but do al­ter­nate; it shouldn’t just be one par­ent who plays all the games ...

a child be­cause of big un­met needs in their own life; or they think that their part­ner is out of touch with what their child re­ally needs. Maybe it would look like this:

• You whis­per to your child that when Daddy has gone to work they will be al­lowed back on the com­puter.

• You slip your child the money that her mother said she could only have by do­ing a chore.

• You wink know­ingly at your child, show­ing that the two of you have a spe­cial un­der­stand­ing.

• It might even be as ob­vi­ous as you and your child talk­ing about some­thing that ex­cludes the other par­ent’s thoughts or opin­ions.

The pri­mary al­liance needs to be par­ent-to-par­ent! Chil­dren feel safer and more se­cure when they know they can­not drive a wedge be­tween their par­ents. This does not mean that they won’t try but, deep down, they don’t want to be suc­cess­ful in di­vid­ing par­ents. A child left to con­trol the re­la­tion­ships in a fam­ily has been given way too much power and it will ‘rat­tle’ them. Chil­dren are re­as­sured when the big peo­ple in their lives are the ones who work to­gether for their good. You are not ex­clud­ing them: you are wel­com­ing them to be part of the fam­ily – but just not as the boss or com­man­der.

A cou­ple of things have helped. The first was the rev­e­la­tion of the im­por­tance of pre­sent­ing our­selves as a ‘parental unit’: not just in terms of be­ing seen to back each other but also in ac­tively demon­strat­ing that our re­la­tion­ship as a cou­ple comes first. I think some of the power strug­gles we’ve had with An­nie in the past were be­cause we tried to be as in­clu­sive with her as pos­si­ble, per­haps giv­ing her the idea that she is an equal and there­fore needs to com­pete for one or the other par­ent’s at­ten­tion when we are all to­gether. From a

par­ent – June 2014

Keep­ing the in­for­ma­tion to your­self

It is ob­vi­ous: if one par­ent is around a child more dur­ing the day then they are go­ing to know more about what is go­ing on. The other par­ent ar­riv­ing home can­not pos­si­bly be as aware of how tired or hun­gry they are, or how long they have been wait­ing for some­thing or what dis­ap­pointed them at school that day. The child may be on the verge of los­ing it but, un­less the par­ent ar­riv­ing home is good at telepa­thy, they will walk straight into a mine­field. They might be keen to be of as­sis­tance but they don’t have the ‘lay of the land’. They might make wrong as­sump­tions: for ex­am­ple, they might think that a child tak­ing a long time to get into the shower is just fool­ing around, when it might be that the child is re­ally sad about some­thing. Just like when nurses go off duty and leave notes for the next nurses to read up on, make a point of de­lib­er­ately ‘pass­ing the ba­ton’ when your part­ner is about to step into par­ent­ing duty. I sug­gest hav­ing some in­ter­ac­tion over a cup of tea or a glass of wine: you can pass on the in­for­ma­tion, the kids get to see your strong re­la­tion­ship and you will en­joy a bit of time to­gether be­fore the next surge of ac­tiv­ity.


“No! Mummy feed me.” “No! Daddy tuck me in.” “No! Mummy take me to the toi­let.” Chil­dren can have a favourite par­ent and in the early days it can seem quite cute (as long as you are the favourite one). But it is ex­haust­ing for the one par­ent do­ing all the work and it ex­cludes the other. The child be­comes less flex­i­ble as they feel en­ti­tled to ‘own’ a par­ent and that is too much power for a wee per­son! Of course, it might pan­der to our pride, as se­cretly we re­ally do be­lieve that we are best story reader, the best at giv­ing baths and at feed­ing the child… maybe the best at ev­ery­thing. Give your part­ner the op­por­tu­nity to get bet­ter. Don’t hog the re­la­tion­ship with your child. Yes, chil­dren go through phases of lik­ing one par­ent more than the other, but gen­tly and firmly wean them off hav­ing you all to them­selves. Help your child build con­nec­tions with the other par­ent – it will come back to bless you!

Chil­dren look to the big peo­ple in their lives to show them how to be­have. They watch how par­ents work to­gether and they learn from that model. If chil­dren can see re­spect, ne­go­ti­a­tion, dis­cus­sion and con­sid­er­a­tion, they will feel safe and se­cure and can get on with the busi­ness of be­ing chil­dren within a fam­ily, not chil­dren rul­ing the fam­ily.

and more se­cure when they know they can­not drive a wedge be­tween

their par­ents.

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