Doherty, W.J. (2000). Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times. South Bend, IN: Sorin Books.
If you are in a two-parent family, you know the advantages of having another committed adult to support you in raising your children. You have someone at hand to talk things over with, to share decision making, and to help shoulder the labor of raising a family. Your children have a model of adults working together for the good of others.
You also know what can go wrong when two parents don’t raise children as a team. If parents pull in different directions, then the rules of mathematics are violated: one + one = less than one parent. Two parents not working together have a harder time raising responsible children than one competent parent. Two parent families are often the best, and sometimes the worst, environment for children to grow up in.
You might think that close cooperation between parents is an obviously good thing. But a curious idea has recently entered some family discussions of parental teamwork. I will describe it through the family of Sarah, a normal 14-year-old girl who is the only child of two loving parents. Sarah prefers to negotiate with each parent separately for privileges such as going to rock concerts and spending weekend overnights with friends. Like other smart teenagers, she looks for which parent is more permissive on these decisions. Her parents, however, are appropriately cautious about how much freedom to give her at age 14, and they generally check with each other before making a decision.
So far, the story is a familiar one: a child wants to maximize her freedom by getting permission from the parent she thinks is more “open” to her new experiences, and the parents close rank and resist her efforts to divide and conquer. This scenario is probably as old as families. What is new is that Sarah openly complains about being “ganged up on” by her parents, and the parents feel a touch of guilt for outnumbering her and outmaneuvering her.
When I first heard about these complaints from children, I was puzzled. How could anyone think that two parents working closely together constitute an unfair advantage over their own child? Of course, if the parents make poor, unfair decisions, then that’s another matter. But Sarah was complaining about the unfairness of the parents’ teamwork itself, not just the direction of their decisions. When I heard that the parents basically agreed with her—expressing regret about having to gang up on her, and understanding that this must be difficult for her—I was befuddled.
Here is how I came to understand what is going on. Children increasingly want to relate to their parents as peers. Although children have to accept the reality that their parents have more power than they do—and hence are not fully peers—they can at least believe that they should be part of every conversation that affects their well-being and desires. If Sarah is directly negotiating with both parents, and they don’t talk with each other outside of her presence, then at least she has the idea that she is a full partner in the final decision.
But when the parents discuss matters behind closed doors and come to an agreement, contemporary children, especially teens, are apt to see this as inherently unfair. It throws in Sarah’s face the power imbalance in the family. Why should the parents have their own private decision-making discussions that she is not privy to? How can she make her best case if she is not present for the debate? It’s so unfair.
To better understand this situation from Sarah’s perspective, imagine that you have two roommates with whom you must negotiate decisions about your shared household. After you have deliberated with each of them separately, you find out that your roommates get together without you, make the final decisions, and then take a united front with you. Foul play! You have the right not to be ganged up on by your peers.
It’s bad enough that many of today’s children feel entitled to be part of every discussion their parents have about them, but it’s worse when their parents feel ambivalent about exercising proper parental teamwork. Sarah’s father tells his friends that he can empathize with his daughter’s feelings of being ganged up on, because, after all, there are two parents and just one child. You know, two against one. He thinks that if Sarah had a sibling, she would feel less unequal.
I challenged this father on two counts. I contended that parents owe it to their children, and to each other, to work closely together. That’s the job of parents—to be a team, including making decisions during private conversations. Of course the decisions will be better ones if the parents have thoroughly discussed them with the child, whose wishes and feelings must count. But there is nothing remotely unfair about parents talking in private and thereby acting like parents. The father’s empathy was misplaced, as was his guilt. That fact that Sarah felt the way she did was the problem; the parents’ behavior was not the problem. It is misplaced empathy to feel badly for a child whose parents are acting like parents should act.
The second point I discussed with the father was the idea that their daughter would feel less ganged up on if she had a sibling. Most of the controversial decisions we make for our children are made for one child at a time—whether to allow a new sports activity, a sleepover, a concert. The presence of a sibling does not much affect the child’s feeling of being outmaneuvered by the parents on these matters. It’s not as if your younger sister is going to fight for your right to a later curfew than she has.
Sarah’s parents seemed to be making good decisions and exercising appropriate control. But, in being unnecessarily apologetic about Sarah’s feeling of being ganged up on, they are missing the opportunity to teach her about how two-parent families work. They are failing to remind her of the difference between being a parent and being a teenager. Instead, they implicitly endorse the ideal that no two family members would have leverage on the third. One for all, all for one—except that the children will end up being only for themselves because they are not mature enough yet.
How does this pattern affect children’s sense of respect and responsibility, their citizenship in the family? Uncertainty about the legitimacy of parental teamwork inevitably leads to confusion among children about what is appropriate to say and do to parents. A sense of entitlement to treat parents as peers will gradually creep in. Sarah, who has only a mild case of peer entitlement at this point, does feel free to lecture her parents about how the 1990s are different from the era they grew up in. Not disrespectfully, but she is pushing the envelope of respect for her elders. An indication that her lecturing is somewhat troublesome is that she does not sit still for her parents’ lecturing her about most topics.
Another teenager I knew was farther along. Sally, whose behavior was often a challenge, openly criticized her father for being out of shape, and her mother for being a sloppy housekeeper. Her parents had never successfully controlled her tongue, and when, on the rare times they met privately to try to set down some new rules for her behavior, Sally would turn her fury on them for “talking behind my back.” When I coached the parents on acting like a team, Sally at first objected strongly that this was unfair. But when the parents confidently held their ground, she became a happier and more cooperative young person. Most kids really do get it when their parents work together with confidence.
Children also feel more secure when their parents work closely together. It is a scary thing for children to have too much power in their own upbringing, especially the power to divide the parents. This insecurity will show itself in lack of respect for the parents. It will also show itself in peer relationships and later romantic relationships, which will be conflicted. In the current generation of graduate students, some have objected to the procedure whereby the faculty meet to evaluate first-year students without the student being present! What do you think went on in these students’ families?
PROTECTING YOUR MARRIAGE FROM YOUR CHILDREN
Many contemporary parents are so child-centered that their children have little sense that there is a marriage in the house, a marriage that underlies a strong parenting team. Their children never learn to respect the boundaries of their parents’ marital relationship. By “boundary,” I mean the private zone of a person or a relationship. Children are permitted to interrupt their parents’ conversations at any time. If you are married, when was the last time that you asked one of your children to not interrupt your couple conversation? Just as many children have an open door to interrupt their parents’ conversations with friends, it’s the same for their parents’ marital talks.
For many parents, the marital relationship always comes in second to the children’s needs and desires. The children have the sense of being at every moment “number one” in the lives of each of their parents, with the needs of the marital relationship quite invisible. Naturally there are many occasions when a child’s urgent needs must come first, for example, when a hungry, wet baby needs a quick response or a 12-year-old can’t understand tomorrow’s homework assignments. But parents who have difficulty asking children to sacrifice their immediate preferences for the common good of the family won’t even think of asking their children to give them a few minutes of private conversation as a couple–unless there is an urgent reason. The marriage is at the bottom of the priority scale, I believe, in most American families.
When our youngest child was about three, my wife and I created a couple talk ritual after dinner. We would feed the children dessert while we cleaned the dishes and started the coffee. Then we would send the children off to play while we spent about 15 minutes, over a cup of coffee, catching up with each other. Our expectation was that the children would not bother us during this time unless there was something very important. When they did interrupt us with routine matters, we gently but firmly told them to wait because we were having our coffee talk. Before long, they got the idea and left us in peace for a ritual that became a cornerstone of our marriage.
When Leah and I would talk about this ritual with friends, or I would share it with clients, you would have thought that we were from another planet. Most couples simply cannot imagine their children cooperating with such a ritual. Leaving the parents alone for 15 minutes? Impossible. Most children won’t leave their parents alone for 30 seconds. My response: it’s a matter of what we expect and what we are willing to work on with our children. If you start young, it seems natural to them. Years later, our children would say that it gave them a secure feeling to know that we were communicating with each other. Children’s security rests in the quality and endurance of their parents’ marriage. They can be taught to respect and support the boundaries of that marriage.
Parents’ reluctance to advocate for their own time also shows itself in bed time routines. It seems that most children nowadays are allowed to stay up until either they choose to go to bed or they fall asleep in front of the television or computer. This makes sense from a child-as-consumer perspective. If you are a customer at a motel, you decide yourself when you are ready for bed. If your son is not sleepy, how do you justify requiring him to go to bed, or to be quiet in his bedroom? Having personal time or couple time is not a good enough reason for many parents to justify—to themselves or to their child—establishing a firm and reasonably early bedtime. The result is that our children are with us, expecting our undivided attention, until they or we collapse for the evening. Trying to change this bedtime-on-demand approach will be met with fierce accusations that you are being arbitrary and unfair—and a poor parental service provider.
My wife and I had firm bedtimes for our children, which we adjusted as they got older. It began with 7:30 for preschool age and went gradually up to 8:30 by the start of junior high. We had a bath and talk ritual that started about 30 minutes before the established bedtime. Our expectation, by the way, was not that the children would go to sleep at the dot of 8:00 P.M., for example, but that they be quietly in bed or in their room. Once they were in elementary school, they were in charge of when they turned the lights. We thus were in control of bedtime, and had time for ourselves as individuals and a couple, but without trying to control that which parents cannot control–when their children actually go to sleep. If the objective is only that of sleep, when a child claims to not be sleepy at bedtime, then parents feel it is unfair to “make” them go to bed. Our children often stayed up for awhile, reading or playing quietly with a toy, and seemed to enjoy ending the day with some private down-time.
When your child becomes a teenager and no longer has a bedtime, you can follow the same principle of asking for respect for your alone time or couple time in the evening. You can ask your teenager to let you know what he or she needs from you earlier in the evening, and then declare yourself at a certain point as “off duty” unless something urgent comes up. Teenagers can learn that, just as they like to be left alone sometimes, their parents do as well. But if you do not calmly assert this boundary in a consistent manner, then your teenagers will be irate that you are not willing to drop everything any time they want your attention.
SUPPORTING YOUR CO-PARENT
In my experience, many two-parent families have just one parent who has high standards for holding the children responsible for good citizenship in the family and community. This parent feels unsupported and even undermined by the other parent.
Let’s say that Mom is trying to uphold standards of caution and safety with her teenage son’s social life. She wants a full description of where he is going on weekend nights, and expects the son to call home if his plans change. Mom wants to know personally the parents at the overnight party. Dad mostly agrees with his wife’s concerns, but he is relatively more concerned that her son not be embarrassed among his friends by having parents who are too strict. Dad enjoyed his teenage social life enormously, and wants his own children to be popular and not dragged down by parents. What’s more, Dad has convinced himself that the group his son hangs out with are all “good kids.” The parents have regular arguments about how closely to monitor and restrict their son.
Can you guess what happens? Over time and many unresolved conflicts, the mother, feeling as if she is the only upholder of standards, comes to act like a suspicious detective, while the father makes excuses for his son and sometimes even lies about how well he knows the family where the overnight will be held. The son then only approaches Dad for permission, and much of the time the mother finds out after the fact. In disgust, she gives up trying.
Or let’s say that Dad is the parent who advocates for family dinner rituals. They were important in his growing up years, and he wants the same for his family now. His wife is not against family dinners, but they are not a priority for her–and she’s the main cook. As the children get older and push the limits of the dinner ritual—by coming late or scheduling activities during this hour—the father struggles and protests while the mother looks on and makes excuses for them. The children know instinctively when their parents are not together on an expectation. As family dinners erode further, and children want to “graze” before Dad gets home rather than wait to have dinner as a family, the mother starts to graze herself–and then prepares a separate meal for her husband to eat alone when he gets home. She keeps the television news on unless her husband asks her to turn it off. She has joined the children in passive resistance to her husband’s “rigid” insistence on family dinners. Eventually, he gives up and becomes a grazer himself.
Sometimes it is important that one parent take a firm stand against the other parent’s wishes, especially when those wishes are aimed at pleasing children’s consumer needs. When your spouse is weakening on the matter of your high school student spending prom night in a hotel, it’s time to put your foot down and say no. You can exercise a parental veto, and then later work out your conflict with your spouse. Recently, our local newspapers had a story and photos of young teenage girls at the mall, during a school day, waiting to get autographs from a new teen idol band. Most said that their parents had dropped them off at the mall; one mother even rented a van to bring a group of girls from out of state. Years ago, these kids would have been “playing hookey” from school, without their parents’ knowledge, and received detention for this misconduct. Nowadays, their parents freely allow them to skip school because of an exciting opportunity, and then write them a bogus excuse about being sick. The school does its part by looking the other way. In situations where one parent is weakening, I encourage the other parent in the household to say “I will not permit this kind of irresponsible behavior! School comes first! Over my dead body will you go to the mall tomorrow instead of school!” I’ll bet the child and other parent, although furious, will be secretly relieved that someone in the family is acting like a parent.
But unilateral vetoes cannot be the permanent stuff of parental teamwork. If you want to raise your children as good citizens, spend time and energy getting on the same page with your spouse. Otherwise, you will win some battles but eventually lose the war to the consumer culture of childhood, which is too strong for one parent alone to resist if the other parent is in its embrace. If your spouse will not work with you on these important concerns, then get some help from a marital therapist. The stakes are too high, because the culture is too toxic for children to handle if their parents are divided.
HOW TO BE A TEAM RAISING RESPONSIBLE CHILDREN
Here are some ideas about working together with your co-parent. I’ve gleaned them from my professional experience and my personal experienceas a spouse and co-parent for over 27 years.
Talk openly together about what values you want your children to have and to demonstrate in their behavior. Don’t assume you see things the same way or hold the same values in the same priority order.
Clarify your parenting values by discussing specific scenarios–chores, bedtime, meals, church attendance, curfew, dating, disrespectful language.
Talk specifically about the themes we have been discussing in this book. Do you both see a problem with entitled children taking over their families? Have you each seen examples? Do you see this as a threat in your own family?
Look for your differences and put them on the table. Does one of you tend to be “softer” with the children and the other “harder”? Try to surface these differences without making one parent the bad parent.
Agree that you will try to work with, and sometimes blend, your parenting differences, and that you will both support the final decision.
When you have agreed on expectations of your children, you should be interchangeable in enforcing them. If dinner is at six o’clock, both parents should enforce it, even if one of them feels more strongly about it.
Be alert to how your children are treating your spouse. Do not tolerate disrespect to either of you.
If you find yourselves getting locked into “enforcer” versus “easy going” roles with the children, deliberately plan a period of time to reverse these roles, or reverse them around certain agreed-upon issues. For example, let the easygoing parent take over enforcing the chores or getting the children ready for bed.
If you have concerns about your partner’s parenting behavior, talk about it in private rather than undermining the partner in front of the children.
Make sure that all major policies and decisions are thoroughly aired between the two of you before being shared with the children.
Work diligently to carve out time and space for your own relationship. Ideally, this includes some time each day to talk as a couple and a date at least every other week.
Children cling not only to their parents, but to their parents’ relationship with each other. Loving, cooperative two parent families are clearly the best environment for today’s children to be raised in. But having two parents in the home does not insure that they will work together to raise good citizens. That’s why I say that two parent families are the best and the worst places for raising children. May yours be the best.