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The biggest thing parents fight about? How to discipline kids

Here’s how experts say to stop those discipline disagreements.

The biggest thing parents fight about? How to discipline kids

Aligning two different discipline styles isn’t an easy task—no argument there. For most of us, responses to our children’s naughty behavior is determined not just by our own backgrounds, but also by our broader hopes for the ways we want to raise our children.


With two parents weighing in, this can make matters complicated. In fact, discipline topped debates on spending and nurturing to be the #1 point of contention between parents in a 2015 Care.com survey.

“Frequently, one parent wishes a softer approach, such as explaining, talking and encouraging,” says Barbra Russell, LPC. “The other parent wants to use a more stern style with harsher consequences. Each, of course, feels their point of view is the only right one, which can lead to arguments and problems in the relationship.”

Unlike battles over diapers and sleep schedules, discipline disagreements are only likely to evolve in time—often with more on the line when kids reach teenage years.

Here’s how experts suggest getting on the same page:

Address your childhood

Studies show most parents’ disciplinary philosophies are influenced by the methods their own parents used—especially when it comes to whether parents deem corporal punishment acceptable.

Dr. Fran Walfish, a family psychologist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child, says that repeating our parents’ habits is often done automatically and without consideration to the consequences. For those who don’t want to use the same methods with their children, she says it’s essential to take an “honest look within” to come up with a better game plan before the heat of the moment.

Be willing to compromise

Once you have a clearer sense of what you want to do—or not do—the next step is to seek an understanding of where your partner is coming from, too. From there, the goal should be combining both value systems in ways that both partners can feel good about, says marriage retreat founder Dr. Wyatt Fisher.

“For example, a wife may desire empathy for her middle school son struggling in school and not think daily homework checks are needed. However, the husband may desire accountability and want him to prove he's doing his homework to develop self-discipline,” says Dr. Fisher. “In reality, both values are important, empathizing with the challenges faced by the student but also requiring some level of accountability to ensure he stays motivated.”

Workshop scenarios ahead of time

Some disagreements may be linked more to personality differences between you and your partner than overarching philosophies. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, moms are more inclined to have conversations with children about why behavior was inappropriate as the discipline approach. The same study found moms are more prone to leniency with their kids than dads—which may explain why moms’ err on the side of second chances.

In these cases, it may help to come up with a plan ahead of time, says Russell, author of Yes! I Said No! How to Increase Healthy Boundaries and Increase Your Self-Esteem. She suggests reaching an agreement with your partner ahead of time what your expectations are for children’s behavior—and then working together to outline consequences if those expectations aren’t met.

Look at the big picture

As with many things related to parenting, decisions about discipline should be based on what’s in the long-term interests of your child, says Christine Smith, author of 18 Master Values: Be the Parent You Wish You Had. “They have to realize these are little humans they need to love and teach, not property they need to try to control,” says Smith.

When you and your partner can both approach these situations with the same goals in mind, it can help give you clarity and purpose. (Which goes a long way when you’re trying to maintain patience with a tantruming toddler.)

Assign responsibility to the kids

With discipline in general, the goal should be fostering personal responsibility in our children, says Russell. “When it's time to enforce a consequence, explanation to the child sounds something like this: We're sorry you chose to disobey and therefore you chose this appropriate consequence,” she says. “I'm sure you'll do better next time.”

When done well, this can also serve to take pressure off you and your partner. After all, the more self-aware the kid, the less you’ll need to step in with discipline anyway.

If you and your partner are willing to put this work in today, it will help avoid discipline conflicts tomorrow—while also helping you raise children with both of your strengths.

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