Luke’s mother arrived home after a hard day at work. Passing the family room on her way to the kitchen, she couldn’t help but notice that it looked like a cyclone had hit. Clothes were strewn all over, but especially alarming was the sheer quantity of tortilla chip pieces scattered about the room. There were globs of what seemed to be salsa on the couch. Her teenaged son was nowhere to be seen, but music could be heard coming from his room.
“You are grounded this weekend and maybe next weekend and maybe the weekend after that. I am so sick of this.”
“But Mom, that is so unfair. I was going to clean it up.”
“I don’t want to hear a word.”
Half an hour later, Luke’s father got home after his hard day at work.
“Dad, Mom is a crazy person. She is so unfair. I was going to clean up the mess. And now I’m going to be grounded forever. Dad, you have to do something.”
“I’m sure it’s not exactly like you’re saying, but I’ll speak to your mother.”
“Dad, you have to. She’s psychologically unbalanced.”
Luke’s father went into their bedroom, where his wife was watching TV.
“Lynette, maybe we should’ve given him a chance to clean up his mess before grounding him.”
“I can’t believe you. Anything I do, he runs to you.”
“That’s not true, Lynette.”
“It is true. You let him wrap you around his little finger. You undermine me as his parent.”
“No, you don’t understand. You’re right that he’s a lazy slob. But he’s a teenage boy. That’s what they do. What you expect from him is not reasonable.”
The argument got considerably worse. Luke’s father ended up sleeping on the couch. This was not the first argument of this kind, nor would it be the last. It was an ongoing source of serious friction between Luke’s parents. Clearly, on raising their son, they had very different views.
Luke’s father: “She wants to punish him for every little thing. She doesn’t know how to differentiate between the small stuff and what really matters. I think Lynette lets too much of her anger – especially about work – carry over into her dealings with Luke. And she doesn’t see it.”
Luke’s mother: “Gary doesn’t like confrontations. He’ll always back down with Luke. Luke’s going to become an adult who thinks he can talk his way out of everything. In his world there are no consequences. But that’s not the way it’s going to work in the real world.”
Both parents’ views about what was going on were at least partially accurate. Their ways of parenting were not totally wrong. Both wanted what was best for their son. But the bottom line was that their parenting styles were very different.
Is it possible for two people with two very different approaches successfully to co-exist as parents of the same child? Yes, definitely.
Children learn that their parents think differently. That is not bad. The fact that their parents can have different approaches is a reflection of the real world.
What matters the most – the one thing that is crucial – is that when one parent takes a stand, the other parent must back them up – even if that parent disagrees. Part of being a co-parent is understanding that you do not have total control of how your child is raised.
Luke’s mother is right. If Luke regularly runs to his father when he does not like what his mother has decided, and if his father then intervenes on his son’s behalf, that undermines the mother’s authority. It’s message to Luke is that what his mother says doesn’t really count. Luke can get around her. Her authority in his life has big holes in it. In Luke’s eyes she is demeaned.
But what is worst of all – and a significant part of many divorces – is that it infuriates the undermined parent. Always.
If a parent doesn’t agree with the actions of the other parent, they can argue – but not in the moment. Arguing is for later, privately, between the two parents.
For important issues – before they take a stand with their child – parents should consult with each other. But for many day-to-day decisions, that is not workable. Each parent has a right to make on-the-fly decisions that they know will be backed.
Having different parenting styles is not a liability. It only becomes so when one parent’s decisions are not supported by the other.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books and runs anthonywolf.com.