Dear Dr. Samson,
My husband and I frequently disagree on when or for what our 7-year-old son should be punished. Sometimes we argue about it in front of him and usually no discipline occurs.
Over the past six months, our son has become more unmanageable. If I try to discipline him, he runs to dad for protection. My son's teacher tells us he is not a discipline problem at school. All I know is that he is disrupting our house and the relationship between my husband and me. Please help us handle this problem.
The scenario you describe is one of the most common and certainly disruptive interactions parents endure. "Divide and conquer" is the battle cry of all children.
In the situation you portray, your son is directly in charge. He keeps both of you off balance during confrontations, so that instead of focusing your attention on his disciplinary needs, you are battling each other. Your son becomes a spectator rather than a participant.
Your statement about his teacher's observations is very helpful in answering your question. This indicates he is basically a law-abiding, aim-to-please citizen when confronted by effective behavior control and direction. In other words, he is not suffering from a generalized behavior disorder that manifests itself in all elements of his life. This makes prognosis better and management easier.
In some cases, this type of family problem is only an expression of more deep-seated differences between a husband and wife. At times a couple finds it too hard or painful to address a basic issue disrupting their relationship. Thus, they focus on another issue or dispute to haggle about. In the process they vent their hostility without touching on the keystone issue.
It is a form of the burnt toast syndrome. A husband feels his wife spends too much time going out with her friends or watching soap operas and, because of that, the household and their relationship suffers. Rather than telling her that, he waits until she makes a slight error (such as burning the toast or serving cold coffee) and then blows up. The argument that ensues is ridiculous because they are having a major disagreement over an insignificant occurrence that has nothing to do with the basic problem. Nothing beneficial occurs, guilt is generated and the fundamental vexation continues unaddressed.
You should be sure that in the situations you describe, the burnt toast syndrome is not involved. If it is, you must address the basic problem while you take measures to correct your son's discipline problem. The following program has proven helpful to many of my families. More importantly, they tell me it is workable and generates meaningful communication between them where none existed before. At first glance, you may feel it is too compulsive, but if you follow it exactly, you will find it accomplishes the desired end. Take no shortcuts.
First, at a time when your son is not around and the television is off, you and your husband should independently write down what behavior should lead to discipline. Don't worry about what the discipline is going to be at this time. Just write down a list. Remember, at this point you and your husband are writing independently; no discussion, no sharing of thoughts.You must include any behavior you feel needs discipline. When you are done, put the paper away for 24 hours and then review it, making appropriate changes. It is still your list.
When your independent work is completed, write down what the discipline will be for any offense. Make the punishment universal. That is, one sentence for any offense. Remember, your son is only 7 years old and his offenses will usually be of a similar magnitude, so you do not need multiple levels of discipline. As children get older, they need several degrees of disciplinary activity because their offenses will vary in severity. Be sure the punishment is reasonable, consistently enforceable and meaningful to the child.
Now that you and your husband each have your paperwork done, sit down together and compare lists. Let me caution you that dad may say, "I don't need to make a list; you make one and it'll be OK with me, or then we'll look it over." That avoidance maneuver is unacceptable and will not work. Each parent must do his or her independent work. Contrary to a popular but antiquated and ineffective belief, childhood discipline is not the province of mom. Both parents must actively participate and present a united front. Review each point; if it appears on both lists, it is LAW.
If it appears on only one paper, discussion must follow and it either is dropped or incorporated in the combined list. If it is incorporated, it can only be put there when both parents agree. Sometimes discussion of this nature takes several sessions before agreement is reached. If a stalemate occurs, take a break and think about it individually before reopening the debate.
This review must also be done when the children are gone or are in bed; in other words they should not share in your discussion. The final code of conduct must be presented as a unified effort of mom and dad.
Tell yourselves before you start that this review is not a power struggle between parents to get your list approved. It is a sharing of thoughts to develop a single easily understood code of conduct that reflects the beliefs and wishes of bother parents as one.
Next month: How to present the list to your child and how to use it.