He believes in tough love. You prefer respectful parenting. A little spanking isn’t a big deal to him. But to you, it borders on abuse. There is no compromise in sight on how best to discipline your child.
Even when two people may seem like two peas in a pod, many couples are uncharacteristically unbudging when it comes down to parenting and discipline. There’s good reason why this is so.
“Our caregivers’ responses were like a template of parenting that we internalised. This means that when we become parents, we often repeat our caregivers’ emotional responses and behaviours with our children without realising it,” says Lin Hong-hui, founder and clinical psychologist at The Psychology Atelier.
Case in point: 36-year-old freelance communications professional Tanya Tan finds herself reverting to her “typical Asian mum’s” stern methods on her six- and four-year-old children. “I would use the same words and tone, but with caning, it’s nowhere as often as my mother did to me. I often had cane marks all over my arms and legs,” she shares candidly.
In contrast, Mel Tan, a 39-year-old homemaker grew up with parents who preferred a gentler style of communicating. “They never hit me, and I don’t do that to my P1 child as well. But in hindsight, I wasn’t sure if I was shown behavioural limits,” she says.
With unique growing up experiences, it is only natural that parents differ in parenting styles. And because emotions were part of our childhood experiences, we can feel and disagree quite passionately on parenting practices, says Hong-hui.
What compounds the problem is modern parents’ anxiousness in helping children succeed or hit developmental milestones earlier; unsolicited input from family and friends isn’t helpful either.
So what do you do when you discover that you and your spouse are poles apart in your parenting beliefs and discipline methods? And are there ways to bridge the difference so your marriage stays intact, and your child is raised on the right values?
The short answer is yes, according to the therapists we interviewed, but it takes work.
Start by talking about it
Our hang-ups with the kids often have roots in our own childhood. Without unpacking them with your partner (even if you think you know each other’s skeletons), misunderstandings can easily arise.
“I strongly encourage couples to stop assuming they know what their partner will be like as a parent and actually have the conversation. Communicating openly about your triggers can create a more cooperative and understanding co-parenting dynamic,” says Silvia Wetherell, psychotherapist at Alliance Counselling.
She raises the example of a mum who struggles with self-esteem issues as an adult because she had overly critical parents. While she may be extra mindful in not repeating the pattern, her well-intentioned husband, none the wiser, may try to discipline the child in a harsh manner. This ends up triggering not just the seemingly overactive adult wife, but the wife’s inner child.
In a parallel instance, though Mel wasn’t spanked as a child, she struggled with feeling unheard and misunderstood during her rebellious teen years. “This is why I try hard to pay attention to what my son is really trying to communicate, or if he has any unmet emotional needs, during a tantrum. When my husband starts raising his voice without first hearing the child out, I take issue.”
Silvia suggests beginning by reflecting on how you felt as a child, the experiences at home you’d like to replicate and what you want to change in your own family. “Talk about the best memories growing up, and the moments you felt not good enough, ashamed and misunderstood,” she elaborates.
Tanya recalls how being the target of her mother’s wrath eventually caused a rift between the two. Though she has adopted caning—”no more than a single whack on the butt”—on her offspring, she makes sure to explain the reason for her doing so, even though her husband doesn’t think it’s necessary. “This is how I consciously try to differ from my mother. I also tell myself never to use my kids as a punching bag for my own problems,” she says.
Be kind to yourself
While parenting is a joyous journey, becoming a new mother or father can trigger intense feelings of grief, anger and even difficulties in your relationship with your parents, notes Silvia.
“’How could my mum treat me like that?’ ‘I can’t believe my dad would say such horrible things to me.’ These are some of the comments I hear in the counselling room when exploring parenting values,” she shares. The desire to give your child a safe and loving environment especially highlights all that were lacking in your own childhood and can force you to confront issues you weren’t ready to face before.
In addition, new parents are also “prone to catastrophising”, adds Silvia, believing that if they do not nip any behavioural issues in the bud, their child will become a spoilt brat. Some may also tend toward self-criticism, considering themselves a failed parent if they can’t manage their child in public. All these only serve to make you more tense and reactive during difficult moments.
Start talking to yourself in more compassionate ways (“It’s okay to make a mistake, I’ll try again tomorrow.”)—the same goodwill will then naturally be extended towards your spouse and child.
It’s okay to disagree
Rather than feeling hard-pressed to agree on one best way to discipline a child, accepting your differences and working within them is the more constructive way forward.
“Compromise can then look like meeting in the middle or going with one parent’s point of view this time and with the other the next,” says Victoria Wong, Hong-hui’s colleague at The Psychology Atelier and an accredited Triple P provider. Triple P is an evidence-based parenting programme that equips parents with skills and knowledge to forge positive relationships with their children.
What is important to recognise too is that conflict allows you and your partner to be positive role models. “Showing our children how we navigate disagreements gives them the opportunities to learn that it is normal to disagree sometimes, and that we are allowed to have our own viewpoints even if others don’t think the same,” she says.
The key is learning to handle conflict respectfully and in a way that does not threaten the relationship. Victoria recommends leading with these statements:
- My partner is worthy of my respect, kindness and curiosity, even in difficult conversations.
- We come from different families and backgrounds that contribute to our parenting perspectives, and thus can both have valid yet different viewpoints. I will regard his perspective in the same way I want mine to be regarded. I will not degrade him with my words or dismiss his opinion.
- We are on the same team. Even if we disagree, we both value raising our children well.
These are important reminders that Tanya has intuitively picked up at home. “I’m the more anxious one when it comes to academics. But my husband always reminds me to look at their progress, not just the results. I will take time to process his reminders instead of brushing them off,” she reflects.
However, if things come to a head and an argument seems inevitable, pause the discussion and resume when you have privacy, says Silvia. In addition to helping your child feel safe, this will also avoid mixed messaging that can confuse him or her.
Find common ground
If you ever feel “stuck” in your way of parenting, perhaps what might soften your approach is knowing that your parenting style is not going to stay the same over time. “It is important to bear in mind that parenting is really a journey of growing a trusting and loving relationship with co-parents and children, which means it has to be responsive to changing needs, and it isn’t a fixed set of techniques to master,” Hong-hui advises.
Similarly, things can be much more harmonious between you and your other half if you can practise a little flexibility.
“We need to understand alignment as a continual process of adjustment and tending towards each other in parenting styles. The most useful thing parents can do is start an unceasing conversation about parenting. In this conversation, identify shared values and goals you have as parents, acknowledge and discuss points of disagreement, share your experiences, the reasons for your perspectives, learn to compromise and get on the same page as much as possible,” says Victoria.
What would also help is to read a parenting book or attend a parenting programme together. This offers you a “common language” and a way to organise your discussions of parenting principles and topics, she adds.
Being the main caregivers for their children, Tanya and Mel voraciously consumed parenting guides, something their spouses were ambivalent about at first.
“Having grown up on tough love, my husband felt, and probably still does, that respectful parenting was a sure way to spoil the child. But it suits our child’s sensitive nature and he has seen the positive outcome himself,” says Mel.
Focus on the end goal
It’s hard to avoid being bombarded by parenting advice on all fronts—family, friends and even strangers on social media. To avoid being overwhelmed by information, Silvia recommends that parents liken discipline to teaching.
“What are you trying to teach the children about themselves? What are you trying to teach them about people, the world, and the way you’d like them to be treated by others? And is obedience the most critical value when preparing a human being for life?” she says.
Victoria cites a simple example, “If my goal was to raise children with empathy for others, then punishing my children’s misbehaviour without listening to their account of what happened and showing them empathy would naturally go against that.”
Whichever parenting method you and your spouse adopt, children will always find ways to push limits and suffer the occasional meltdown—these are developmentally normal.
Through the good days and bad, the most important bottom line is that your child continues to trust and feel safe in his or her relationship with you, according to the experts we speak to.
Says Victoria, “Children [need to] feel safe to explore their worlds independently and also feel safe to turn towards and rely on their parents for celebration, comfort care, help, guidance and advice.”