"I told Tommy that he couldn't play outside this afternoon because he didn't come in when I asked him to yesterday," Mom instructed Dad on her way out the door. "Please make sure he stays inside." Dad nodded and waved goodbye. But an hour later, when Mom returned home, Tommy was playing in the sandbox in the backyard. She questioned her husband about it. "He kept whining, and he promised that he'd be good, so I let him go outside," Dad explained. "I don't want to be too strict."
Several things have gone wrong in this situation, and the consequences are obvious. Mom is going to be frustrated with Dad for contradicting something she has said, and Tommy has learned that if Mommy says no, go ask Daddy. The parents' discipline is inconsistent, and their son has learned to manipulate them to get what he wants.
"Consistency is the foundation of good discipline," says Dr. Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave so Your Children Will Too. "Consistency between parents may be the single most important factor in successful discipline."
Yikes! In many families, one parent plays "the heavy," doing all or most of the discipline, while the other parent remains the "good guy." Other parents disagree on how the children should be disciplined, causing friction between the adults and confusion in the children.
Dr. Severe says both situations are problematic. "Each parent needs to be in charge when they are alone with the kids," he advises. "Kids will manipulate a situation if they can, if they see that one parent is too easy on them." In other words, don't say, "Just wait until your father (or mother) gets home." Handle minor problems on your own as they happen.
But what do you do when the whole family is together? Who is "in charge" then? Ideally, both parents are. "For most parents, their basic goals for their children are the same, but how they get there is the difference," says Dr. Severe. "The sooner you can agree on discipline techniques, the better."
But since you and your spouse were raised in different homes by different parents, your ideas of the best way to discipline may vary greatly. Dr. Severe advises reading parenting books and magazines or taking a parenting class together. Talk with other parents and see what the "experts" have to say.