If your kids run the show, you can bet that you and your partner will be chronically stressed-out. The two of you need to be in charge. That means you have to decide on rules and consequences, and enforce them.
“What could be simpler than that?” I asked myself before the humbling experience of actually having a child of my own.
I was convinced that when my husband, Steve, and I had children, we would keep them “under control” unlike the idiot parents we saw at the supermarket who seemed to be in a brain fog while their child shrieked and flailed in checkout line.
Becoming parents quickly cured us both of this arrogant attitude. The details of my Bad Mother Days are unveiled in The Mother Dance.
Folks who tell you that “taking charge” is a straightforward and readily attainable goal either don’t have kids or have “easy children” who keep their rooms tidy and set the table without being asked. Kids come into the world with their own unique strands of DNA and some have a natural predisposition toward compliance and responsibility.
Parents of such a child may take full credit for her good behavior and fully believe that you and your partner can easily get your frisky, attentionally-challenged, rebellious and colorful children “under control” As of yet, there is no known cure for this delusional condition except to swap children with them for a week, and maybe throw in a couple of teenage stepchildren for good measure.
As you aim to set rules and consequences, be patient with yourself. It’s normal to have trouble, not because you’re an inept team but because you are human. Don’t hide in the broom closet and keep your feelings to yourself, convinced that more mature parents, guided by their generous instincts, would know exactly what to do.
Agreeing on rules and consequences does not require you and your partner to see eye-to-eye- –whether the subject is your child’s bedtime, granting his wish to watch a vampire movie, or insisting that he finish his broccoli before getting two scoops of ice cream.
There is no “right way” to rear kids. What matters is that you respect each other’s opinions and reach a consensus about rules and consequences that you both can live with, even if you don’t agree. Then you need to be consistent in clarifying the rules and enforcing consequences, while being open to revising your strategy along the way.
One reason it’s so hard to work as a common-sense team is that couples get polarized under stress. He stands for “law and order” and she stands for “love and understanding.” He buys only organic food and won’t allow sugar in the house and she criticizes his “rigidity” in front of the kids and slips them secret treats. He thinks saying “no” to children is the reasonable, mature thing to do, and she thinks he’s stingy and controlling.
He says black and she says white.
When partners get polarized around parenting, it saps their energy and connection as a couple. The fact is, kids won’t suffer from eating some sweets, or going without them, or from being raised by this parenting philosophy or by that one.
They will, however, become anxious or act out if they become the relentless focus of intensity between two parents who can’t reach some kind of creative compromise around rules and consequences. Getting help or coaching when you need it is not only best for your child. It's also a key to making marriage work.
P.S. If a stepchild is in the picture, the actual mother and father needs to step up to the plate and take charge of his or her own kids. The step parent may need to be a good behind-the-scenes coach--when asked. See the different rules for stepfamilies in Marriage Rules.