Any couple raising children is bound to have disagreements about the right way to manage their kids’ behaviors and habits. But there are some issues that are so loaded they threaten to divide parenting partners. ‘Parents’ magazine took an informal poll to see which conflicts topped couples’ lists, and three sources of frustration came up again and again. The hot buttons? Television, consequences, and food. We asked three families to bare the details of their battles and brought in expert help to guide them from stalemate to success.
“We disagree about consequences.”
Melissa and Nick Brindisi
Parents of Owen, 8; Claudia, 6; and Benjamin, 4
“My husband, Nick, and I struggle with how to discipline our older son, Owen. He’s a sweet kid who’s thoughtful and likes to help. But he’s so impulsive, I can’t control him. He’s always yelling or aggravating his brother and sister. For example, Owen will poke them or taunt them by chanting their names over and over, long after they and I have told him to stop. I’ve taken him to multiple counselors who have implemented reward systems, but the rewards, including a bucket of toy prizes I’d purchased, quickly lose their appeal, and then we’re back to square one. Nick’s idea of dealing with Owen was to create a strike system. If Owen doesn’t get three strikes for bad behavior by the end of the day — he doesn’t, say, hit his sister, or he listens when I tell him to stop annoying his brother — he can have extra time in the evening doing something he enjoys, like watching a favorite TV show with Nick. But if he gets three strikes, he’s sent to his room early.
With my husband often on call for his hospital job, I’m the one who’s at home doling out the majority of the discipline. Owen gets ‘strikes’ constantly, so he almost never gets rewarded. I don’t see how this is working, and it’s breaking my heart because I feel like we’re saying, ‘You’re a giant failure.’ I appreciate Nick’s input — he really does want to help — but I’m tired of this endless punishment cycle!”
“Melissa and I don’t always communicate with each other about the kids, so when I am home, Owen takes advantage of that. For example, he’ll come down the stairs and say ‘Dad, can I turn on the TV?’ I’ll ask him, ‘Don’t you have homework?’ He’ll respond, ‘Well, Mom said it’s okay.’ I’ll check with Melissa and she’ll say, ‘I didn’t say that,’ and it snowballs from there and he ends up with a strike. Time-outs had never worked with Owen and I thought things were improving with the new strike system in place, but Melissa insists they’re not. I think we just need to give it more time, and I don’t want to give up the three-strikes system until we have something that will work.”
William Doherty, Ph.D., professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota
Dr. Doherty Says
“Before they can help their child, Melissa and Nick need to see eye to eye. When it comes to assessing what’s going on at home, Nick should trust Melissa’s experience, because she’s there more. Every time he suggests it’s getting better, even though she disagrees, he undermines her experience. The rhetoric ratchets up from there. When Melissa’s put in a position of having to be negative for the sake of Nick’s disciplinary approach, it backfires and the cycle continues. Why? Because the basis of what they say to their son should be positive and the nature of Nick’s strike system is primarily negative. As it is, Owen’s day-end reward is too far from his everyday reality, and he’s being set up to fail. Rather than save the reward for the end of the day, the ‘reward’ should be praise given regularly for small changes — good things that have been caught in action, such as Owen’s spontaneously helping a sibling. Nick and Melissa need to create experiences and positive communication with Owen, where he can feel successful so that he’s not always in failure mode.”
One night after the kids were in bed, Melissa and Nick sat down together to come up with a new, more positive discipline strategy, one they could both agree on. Says Melissa: “It’s true that Owen wasn’t motivated by rewards that were to come later in the day. Nick and I decided to make an effort to start praising Owen’s good deeds throughout the day, such as, ‘Wow, you’re such a great brother, helping Benjamin set up that toy!’ He really responded to positive attention — much more so than he did to little toy prizes, which was another tactic I’d tried, without success — and he started doing more good things like that. Praise is what brings out the best in him.” Owen’s behavior is still a challenge, but Melissa notes, “He’s much better, and we feel he’s even less impulsive now.”