Part 2: What's A Ping-Pong Parent, And How Do I Get Started?
Last week, I wrote about how my mum and dad were ping-pong parents: if we wanted something we couldn’t play one parent against the other. They had some unspoken agreement to go along with whatever the other parent had decided when it came to the children. This meant they’d always back each other up, and refer back to what the other one had said or allowed – even when they didn’t know exactly what it was.
In other words, we kids could try as much as we liked to get a different answer from one parent (the answer we wanted), but we never would. We’d consistently get, “Well, what did your [mum or dad] say?”, and we’d bounce between them like ping-pong balls, which was ultimately good for us!
That’s a really short snapshot of all the issues, so by all means go and check out Part 1 of this blog for more of the details. If you’ve already read it and know all about the 'whys' but want to know a bit more about the 'what to do’s', here goes:
COMMIT TO START WORKING TOGETHER
I think for parents who just haven’t thought about it before, it can be as simple as having an agreement that you stick together and back each other up, especially if your child’s trying to get one parent to say something different to the other parent.
But it can be a bit more complicated if the argument’s been going on for a long time and if there are deeper issues. That’s where Triple P really comes in handy, because we can help explain more, looking at what the child is doing, what kinds of things you can try out together as parents. The focus stays off all the things parents can get stuck on (like how someone was raised and whether that was 'right' or 'wrong'), and we just look at different behaviour.
WHEN THERE’S STILL A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
Sometimes that kind of agreement means one parent says to another, “You go ahead and handle that and I’ll support you." Maybe – we see this a lot – one parent isn’t totally sure about the whole thing, but at least they’ll agree to try something, or let the other parent try something without interfering. Then they see that the other parent’s new strategy is working, and then they get on board too.
What usually happens is one parent tries out some things and the other parent or grandparent doesn’t even have to do it. They just have to stay out of the way. It’s just taking those slightly different steps that changes the whole dynamic. All the fussing and fighting about who’s right and who’s wrong – it’s no longer needed, because they’re not trying to figure out what to do, and nobody feels like their parenting’s being criticised.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
I know for some parents this might sound easier said than done, especially when there’s a really big gulf between how they think kids should be raised. I mean, I grew up with some really rigid disciplinary methods. It was a time when many people thought you should send kids to bed hungry, give them severe spankings – kids were being told to “go get your own switch off the tree”, so you could be beaten with it.
What I’ve found is that when someone else is using something different and it changes the child’s behaviour – especially if it’s been quite difficult behaviour – it kind of makes parents with an 'old school' view realise that maybe, there is another way. It’s happened within my family, within just a generation. They could see that the kids turned out fine. You’re using this empirically-based, researched stuff that really works and so they try and all of a sudden the whole family sees a new approach to dealing with the same behaviour in a positive way.
So again, the dad or the mum or the grandparent can say, “Well I don’t believe in that” but if the other parent is using something and it’s working, and if both parents have the same goal, well, all of a sudden there’s no argument. And we see that over and over again.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
For some couples, it also really helps to look also at just the words they’re using. This can happen a lot when people are co-parenting or not getting along in other ways. They can start speaking to or emailing the parent about something to do with the child using quite heated or emotionally charged language — sometimes without even meaning to — because they’re feeling hurt, angry, and frustrated.
So as well as slowing down and being aware of what you say and how you say it (would you talk to your best friend or a work colleague this way?) it helps to be really clear about what your goal is. When both parents focus back on the child, the specific issue, and what they want their child to do and be and achieve, it’s usually very similar. They have the same goals for their child. If they can stay away from talking about their opinion of the other parent – “she or he this” or “you’re always that”, and focus back on the kid, that often takes the fighting down a notch.
What I’ve found is that even if just one half of the couple is really working on communicating what’s good for the child and staying away from inflammatory language, they can keep bringing the conversation back to what the end goal is. Then, amazingly, all of sudden they’re not fighting anymore.
WHAT DO WE WANT KIDS TO LEARN IN THIS SITUATION?
I’ve worked with couples who, when they talk about the kids and the conversation starts to blow up into an argument, you can see that what’s happening is really just a power struggle between the parents. It’s really about the parent being defensive. People don’t like arguing and conflict and having problems. What they’re often worried about, deep down, is they don’t want to look foolish. Let’s face it, none of us want that in any situation! And especially if they’ve been arguing with the other parent for a long time, they don’t want somebody to come in and say, “Well, the other parent’s right and you’re wrong”, even if that’s not what’s actually going to happen.
We’ve had people say the reason they didn’t want to do Triple P was because they thought somebody was going to point the finger and blame them for the child’s problem behaviour, making it all their fault. And of course Triple P doesn’t do that. It’s about presenting choices to parents: some different ideas about ways to do things. Then people make their own choices about what they want to try.
Often when we talk to parents it’s a really good chance to look at different causes of behaviour and what children are learning in every situation.
The fact is, all parents are going to have differences of opinion and different approaches to life.
But what we really want kids to learn is how to be truthful and co-operative, and that relationships are about compromise and finding common ground. What we want kids to learn from parents is that disagreement happens, but it can be managed. We want children to see their parents learning to communicate effectively and work as a team (even if sometimes they have to agree to disagree).
It’s not always easy, but it may not be hard as you think. Even with a few small changes, your kids will really reap the benefits. Need help? That’s where we come in. And since Triple P started in Australia, I’ll leave you with some Aussie slang that fits perfectly. Sometimes, you just need to “give it a go”.