Splitting Hairs (Or Tearing Your Hair Out): When Parents Disagree Over Discipline

The most important thing? To be consistent, say parenting experts

Are you a shouter? Perhaps you’re a finger-wagger, a cuddler, or a fan of the dramatic, “Now, go to your room!” You might ban screen-time when the kids are playing up or use stickers to reward them when they’re good as gold. Discipline: there’s no easy way to get it right.

Chances are, if you’re a parent or carer of young children, you’re likely to have used at least one of the tactics above. Nobody wants to be that screaming parent – we all try not to blow our tops – but sometimes, it happens.

The important thing, according to parenting experts, is consistency: decide how you want to handle your child when they do something naughty and stick to it.

Where things get tricky is what do you do if your partner disagrees with you.

Not showing strong parental solidarity when you’re addressing your child’s behaviour is one of the “most serious threats to successful parenting”, according to child psychologist David Paltin. Some behaviours can be particularly problematic, he said, such as laughing at the other person, being hostile, or misunderstanding each other’s intentions.

Arguments between parents happen because there are so many different ways to discipline your kids – and parenting expert and author Liat Hughes Joshi said many parents even find themselves altering their methods as their kids grow up. “Younger children need things like rewards and star charts,” she told us.

“You can also introduce ‘golden time’ and visible positive reinforcement, like a marble jar. You have to find the thing that works for your child. For slightly older kids, taking away screen time or pocket money may be more effective.”

One of the most controversial methods of disciplining children is smacking.

Jersey recently became the first part of the British Isles to ban it completely, and there have been calls for other places to do the same. Despite many disagreeing with the method, others – including Amanda Gummer, founder of parenting website Fundamentally Children – believe that sometimes, a quick smack is better than “emotional game-playing”.

“The issue isn't disagreements about child-rearing, it’s how those disagreements are expressed in front of the children."”

So what happens when you don’t agree? When your partner favours a gentle approach, but you want to send your child to their room?

One mother, speaking anonymously to HuffPost UK, said she’s on the softer side of disciplining her seven-year-old son, whereas her husband – who comes from a culture where it’s both legal and accepted to hit a child – disagrees.

“My siblings and I were beaten, not just slapped, by our parents, and not by the parent you might expect,” she said. “We have no feelings for our parents at all now and this has affected the way I discipline. My husband grew up with the belt, but bears no rancour at all because it’s totally normalised.”

She and her husband discuss how to discipline their kids, she says, adding: “He doesn’t hit our son because he knows I wouldn’t stand for it.”

Behaviour support assistant Kate Jones, who has spent 15 years working with troubled kids, said at home she tries to use “gentle parenting”, where her daughter is only told off if she is being unsafe or unkind, otherwise she’s pretty free to explore and experiment. But even Jones doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her husband. “He nags our daughter a lot, over-explains and doesn’t use age-appropriate language,” she said. “It causes a lot of arguments – but I have to remind myself I have been trained in this for years!”

Other parents managed to come to a compromise – despite calling it a “work in progress”. One mum with a seven-year-old daughter told us she and her partner had a chat about how they discipline their daughter differently, and came to the conclusion they could both benefit from talking to her more about her feelings. “We’re trying to take her away and chat to about her choices – to remind her they have consequences,” she said. “We’ve decided we want to parent more alongside her now, rather than use so much discipline – but that’s taking some adjustment.”

The good news is that if you and your partner do differ on discipline techniques, you’re not alone. “Parents disagree, and this is a normal experience in family relationships,” David Patlin tells the Child Development Institute. “The issue is not that parents have disagreements about child-rearing, it’s how those disagreements are expressed in front of the children.”

He said working out these issues earlier, rather than later, is crucial – as is sitting down and talking about “touchy but important” topics such as smacking or how you will react to a child wetting the bed.

Whatever you do, don’t triangulate the other parent, i.e. jump in the middle of a conflict without being asked. “You might feel like you have a better set of tools to deal with the situation, but it undermines the other parent’s ability to work out a problem to its completion,” he said.