Avoiding the ‘Kind Parent’ vs. ‘Mean Parent’ Showdown

Q: My husband tends to be stricter with our children than I am. He comes from a more formal home and believes that much of what he has accomplished in life is due to self-discipline. I am organized in my own way, but in quite a different style than my husband. For example, I can leave the dishes in the sink at night without feeling guilt-ridden about it. Our children definitely pick up on these differences and play one parent against the other. When one child wants a more “play by the rules” answer, s/he will ask my husband. If that same child desires a “let’s make an exception to the rules” answer, s/he will inevitably ask me. Our children may ask one of us a question, and not be pleased with the answer. They will then go to the other parent, get a totally different answer, and comment on the discrepancies between our responses. We can’t rehearse our responses in advance to ensure that we respond in a similar manner, and we both feel quite “stuck” when this happens.

One typical bone of contention is playtime after school. My husband feels that children should do all their homework before having any playtime. I generally don’t hold to that philosophy and don’t think that schedule works well for my children. My children and my husband are aware of this. However, I don’t want my husband to come across as the “mean” parent versus me, the “kind” parent. The idea of parents presenting a “united front” is not always realistic in our house.

A: No two people are the same and are not always expected to think along similar lines. Our unique thoughts and feelings are our human contributions to our world. Explaining this to children helps them see the world in less of a “black and white” fashion. The more comfortably a person can tolerate the “grey” and feelings of ambivalence, the more s/he can tolerate the many challenges life presents.

When your children confront you with parental discrepancies, you need not feel “stuck.” Rather, impress upon them how no two people think the same, and how we learn from one another’s opinions and view of the world.

A united front is indeed necessary for major ethical and religious issues — areas where black and white do exist. There may also be an area about which one parent may have strong feelings; this cannot merely be ignored if it bothers the other parent. In such a situation, the parents need to compromise on their differences, allowing for a solution to arise. By just saying “I don’t hold to that philosophy,” you do not show sensitivity to your spouse’s feelings.

In the case you mention, you and your husband can discuss the issue of playtime and avoid power struggles. You can speak of how certain children play so nicely when they first arrive from school; how the quality of sibling interactions are at their highest. Taking into account your and your husband’s thoughts on this topic, compromises can be reached.

When explaining your husband’s philosophies to your children (which might be necessary if you have quite “laid-back” children), you need to stress his belief system in a palatable way. This does not necessarily mean you agree with your husband, but you are showing that his views have rationale and can be validated. In this way, there is less of a “kind” versus “mean” parent showdown in your home.