Question

I feel like my husband and I are the “good cop” and “bad cop” with our children. He came from a family where children were expected to obey no matter what and I came from a family that was more kind and respectful of individual needs. Our kids pretty much come to me for everything because their dad will always say “no.” He feels like I give in to them and is only involved when I need him to discipline a kid. He wishes I would be stricter with the kids and I wish he would be more fair and kind to them. Can you share any ideas on how to get out of this situation?

Answer

I agree you both need to get on the same page with your parenting approach so your kids aren’t caught in the middle. The biggest problem, however, is the potential impact this division can have on your marriage. I’m sure you can already see how both of your styles are pushing you further away from each other. This split not only undermines your children’s relationships with each of you, but it also creates insecurity in the marital foundation of the family. Let’s talk about how you can strengthen your parenting approach and your marriage.

Both of your styles matter to this family. Your husband’s upbringing and your upbringing each have strengths and weaknesses. Be careful in believing that one’s family was perfect while the other wasn’t perfect. It’s easy to compare one family’s weaknesses to another family’s strengths. Children and marriages can thrive in a variety of environments, so resist the temptation to elevate your approach above your husband’s.

Now, I do recognize that children are naturally going to gravitate toward the parent who is softer and more accommodating. Children are egocentric and will find the most direct path to getting what they want. This is developmentally normal and doesn’t mean that your kids are manipulating you or your husband. As Dr. Wally Goddard once taught me, it’s our job as parents to help our children get what they want in ways we feel good about. The key is that we must be clear on what’s best for our children. I’m confidant both you and your husband can come together and discover what’s best for your children.

Instead of trying to work these things out in front of your children, see if you can pick a time to sit down with your husband and talk about how important it is for you to be on the same page with him. Each of you needs a chance to talk about why you do what you do with your children. Listen carefully for the strengths in the approach and how it can help your children. If there are ways he’s responding that you believe are harmful to your family, speak clearly and kindly about your concerns.

Recognize that your different approaches can unintentionally push the other to a more extreme version of your parenting approach. For example, the more permissive you are with the kids, the stricter and more unyielding he becomes with them. This creates an impossible gridlock that can’t be broken without each of you backing off from your positions and humbly acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of your approaches.

My guess is that your husband has some great ideas that can influence the way you parent your children. He probably notices things you don’t notice. The same goes for you as well. You notice things he doesn’t notice and can also inform his parenting style. The goal isn’t to turn the other person into a copy of you. The goal is to blend your styles into a unified way of interacting with your children. Your parenting beliefs are a product of your family cultures, temperaments, personalities, personal experiences, values, and observations. In other words, we have dozens of reasons we do what we do as parents. Instead of acting out instinct, it’s critical to get clear on the “why” of your parenting approach. I’m guessing you both have similar values and can adjust the delivery so you can be unified as a couple and as parents.

If your children can see you respecting each other’s strengths, they will respond better to each of you. Ask your husband if you can both work to back each other in front of the kids, even if you don’t completely agree with the other’s approach. If your kids sense your frustration with your husband’s style, they will split and choose sides, which isn’t good for anyone.

I’m giving your husband the benefit of the doubt that he’s not being abusive to your children. His strictness or directness may feel harsh and toxic to you, so let him know the impact on you while you also stay open to what he’s trying to accomplish. You both may want to take a parenting class or read parenting books so you can determine what feels safe and effective for your children. Allowing an outside authority to teach both of you at the same time can help you both feel more united instead of feeling like you must battle out your differences.

Of course, if you and your husband can’t even begin this conversation with each other, seek out a qualified marriage counselor who can help you work through this conversation so you can be on the same page with each other. Sometimes the stakes feel so high and the issues so personal when it comes to parenting and family life that it can be difficult to navigate the conversation without getting reactive.  

Let him know you value him as your co-parent and reassure him that you believe both of you have important pieces of the parenting puzzle. Let him know you want to work closely with him to create an environment you both feel good about. You can own how difficult your style is for him and acknowledge that both of you feel threatened by the other person’s style. If you can come together as a team who want the same things for your kids, you’ll be more successful. As you both become less polarized, everyone will benefit and you’ll not only improve your relationships with your children, but also strengthen your marriage.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.