How Can Two Parents Speak The Same Discipline Language?

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I used to be the bad cop. For a minute or two, I was the one who would stick to my guns and believe it when I said to my kids things like, “No, you may not sit on the counter.” If I say that to my kids now, you can bet that, less than five minutes later, they will be perched up there on that counter, grinning and making a mess of things. I’ve gone soft.

My husband, meanwhile, made the opposite transition. When we started out in this parenting game, his feelings about discipline were largely unformed. His laissez-faire attitude contrasted sharply with my expectation that mom and dad should win every battle. Instead of settling together somewhere in the middle, we have traveled all the way to opposing corners.

So what now? The problem is that I know neither one of us is doing it “right.” We’re both a little bit wrong but I can’t seem to clearly decipher which parts of my way should stick, or the nuggets of truth in his tactics. I do know, however, that we both want our toddlers to grow into respectful, creative, open and independent people, which is a fabulous starting point.

Let’s consider a case study, shall we? When I take our daughter to the grocery store, the highlight of the trip by far is the look on her face when we reach the bakery counter. This particular store stocks a mini bakery case on the counter with little round rich, buttery sugar cookies that are to be consumed, free of charge, by its loyal customers. Well, my little lady is perhaps the most loyal of all and joyfully but politely eats two of these freebies each time we go. It’s just part of our routine. Is it the most healthful of options? Absolutely not. But I have a feeling that our sub-30 pound three-year-old can handle it. And like I said, these two cookies make her so damn happy!

Which is why I completely understood her grievance when she returned from a trip to the store with my husband and whispered to me, “Daddy said I couldn’t have another cookie. Just one.” I assured her that he must not know about our two-cookies-at-the-grocery-store thing, and I actually believed it, too. Until his response came back; a stern, “Not before lunch.” Oh. He did know. But he’s laying down the law. He’s the bad cop.

I’d be lying if I tried to say that most of my decisions aren’t motivated by a desire to keep the peace. I like to avoid meltdowns, no matter how brief they may be, and I’m especially keen on avoiding meltdowns in the middle of the night. So I let our kids sit on the counter and eat two cookies at a time and I sleep in our daughter’s bed when she wakes up crying out for me (which is every night). When I start to question my choices, I think about how cool our kids are. They are not whiny brats or entitled toddlers. They generally listen when I tell them, “No,” I just don’t do it very often. Strangers and grandparents alike comment on how well-behaved they are in the toy store or how nice it is to hear a little person say “please” and “thank you.” Perhaps I’m being short-sighted. I honestly don’t know.

Again, the real question is this: how do my husband and I arrive on the same page? The obvious answer seems to be open and frequent communication about the topic of discipline, but we’ve tried that. It’s actually pushing us further back into our respective corners. Do we research the topic and read the same two or three books to select a method that speaks to both of us? Or is it time to consult a professional – someone who can get all Super Nanny on our asses?

I don’t have the answer, but I’m leaning toward the professional. There’s a parenting course that friends of ours took and still swear by four or five years into its utilization. If we find our way there, I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. Until then, my husband and I will keep on choosing our battles and backing each other up as much as we can. And our children will become more and more familiar with the good cop/bad cop game, which, it seems, is what nature intended.

(Photo: iStockphoto)


  1. xobolaji

    November 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    i love this! i think the most important thing that you’re doing is re-evaluating how you parent. my huzza and i do the same, at least i’m the one who usually brings it up and together we discuss our approach, and our children, what’s working, what’s not etc.

    the whole good cop, bad cop thing is reality. and depending on the situation the roles change, and morph. above all consistency is key. so for example, if you consistenly allow your daughter to have cookies at the grocery store, and your husband doesn’t, she knows what to expect with either parent. using that moment as an opportunity to tell her what daddy may or may not *understand* about your ritual is an amazing teachable moment which is more important than you and your husband arguing about “the rules.”

    also, if the cookie thing turns into a “big deal” then you have another opportunity to explain to your daughter that it’s fun to switch up rituals and maybe introduce a new thing the next time you go.

    sounds to me like your on the right path. keep on!

  2. Megan

    November 27, 2011 at 4:19 am

    I agree–it seems you’re heading in the right direction.

    Talk discipline with your husband in broad strokes–not “How many cookies is okay before lunch” (small battle there) but “Okay, what are the most important things we need to present in a unified fashion to our kids? Are you concerned about the sugar in cookies, or her eating her lunch?”. Maybe the amount of cookies isn’t a big deal; it’s that you both want to impress on your child that she has to eat lunch, too, and respect both parents’ different decisions.

    Consistency is key with kids–we have all heard that–but I (for one) don’t believe it’s ever too early for kids to learn that some rules apply overall, and that some people in their lives do things differently. My son doesn’t get my cell phone, for example, but he’s allowed to play with Grandpa’s under close supervision. And we get the opportunity to explain what a “special treat” is, and how he needs to respect what trustworthy adults in his life are instructing him to do. Grandpa knows–because we’ve spoken with him–that our son’s never allowed to run off with his phone, because the supervision is the important part. Your daughter can have two cookies with you because it’s a special “mommy and me” treat. With Daddy, he gets to make the call. Maybe the understanding between you and your husband is that your daughter gets the special treat with you, as long as she eats her lunch. That way the rule across the board doesn’t turn into, “Mommy gives me cookies and Daddy doesn’t,” but “Each parent you’re with is different, and sometimes you will have special treats with both of us, but you must eat your lunch all the same.”

    Of course–that also means setting the parental rules and guidelines straight with the grandparents/aunts/cousins/etc. You pick what’s most important, and work down from there. It helps you avoid the “good cop/bad cop” mentality, too–since that can lead to a kid knowing what parent they can go to for sympathy, and engender a possible fear of the other. It also helps extended family know exactly how much they can indulge your child without stepping over your important boundaries.

    My husband and I try to remain as consistent as possible with our kid over issues we have agreed impact safety and the values we want our child to grow up with (manners, kindness to others, sharing). But it’s also important for a child to realize that not everyone is going to treat him in a consistent manner–life isn’t consistent–and to be flexible regarding different situations.

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