If you’re a parent – and for that matter, if you remember your own childhood – you’ll be familiar with what happens when kids are old enough to learn that their parents are two different people, who sometimes have different opinions.
Picture this scene: One parent tells the child, “Go and have your bath because it’s time to get ready for bed.” Then off they go to take care of another chore, and while they’re out of earshot, the child runs to the other parent, who hasn’t been paying attention or wasn’t around for the original conversation. And then the kid says, “Aww Mummmmm” or “Aww, Daaaad, can’t I please just – ” with those begging eyes, “– can I please just stay up for ten more minutes?”
And maybe the second parent’s feeling too tired to argue, or just can’t see a problem, and they say, “Sure, okay”. But of course, the next thing you know, the first parent goes to the bathroom and the child’s not having their bath and not getting ready for bed. Then the first parent is pretty steamed up and goes looking for the child and when everybody figures out what happened, it often goes one of two ways: the child may get into trouble, or the parents end up arguing with each other. Or maybe both those things happen.
"WHY DO KIDS DO THIS?"
It’s important to remember that the child in this situation, especially if they’re quite young, is really NOT trying to create a fight or put the parents at odds. It’s a very normal, typical thing for kids to do, and it’s because little kids are really just wired for survival, to get what they think they need. They may just be trying it out to see what happens. And it can be over any small issue: bedtime, bathtime, going to the park, sweets, going out to play, what to wear – you name it.
Where the real problems can occur is how the parents handle this kind of thing.
THE PING-PONG EFFECT
When I was a kid, we would try this kind of thing but it would never work. We’d go to our dad and he’d say “ask your mum”. We went to mum and she’d say “what’d your dad say?” We just got batted back to the other one. Even if they had no idea what the other parent had said, they just had a standard reply and would refer us back to the other one. We just got bounced back, every time – like a ping-pong ball.
Now as you can imagine, as kids, we found this really annoying! We’d try now and then to get them to agree to something when the other one had said no, but we just couldn’t break whatever it was that made them stick to this technique.
As an adult, I can see that it must have been an agreement they had with each other — probably an unspoken one. They had some very different ideas, so they probably talked about things when we weren’t around, but we never saw that. But when I got older I realised how much it strengthened their relationship and it really helped us kids learn some really important lessons, even if we didn’t appreciate it at the time.
LOPSIDED PARENTING – WHEN ONE PARENT IS A PUSHOVER
Unfortunately, what can happen is that parents haven’t really talked about this, so they don’t really have a consistent approach, and they don’t back each other up. While every child is going to try to ask the other parent sometimes, if it’s successful, then they’re going to try it more often.
A child will figure out pretty quickly if one parent’s a bit of a pushover, or if they’re busy they’ll say yes to anything, or they usually forget to see what the other parent’s already said. (They can even figure out which parent will be more lenient about which issues, because it may not always be the same one!)
Before long you can end up with a situation where some children will play the parents off against one another. By not figuring it out between them beforehand, the parents have unintentionally taught the child to manipulate the situation.
…OR ONE PARENT IS A DRILL SARGENT
The lopsidedness can happen the other way too. Maybe one parent is unreasonably strict and becomes very angry and wants to punish the child in a way that’s harmful. In this situation, the more aggressive parent might escalate the conflict until the other parent backs down. You really can’t blame the kid in this situation from trying to get the other parent involved, but really all the child ends up 'learning' is that it’s apparently okay to use anger and aggression to get your own way.
WHY DO PEOPLE STRUGGLE TO AGREE ABOUT PARENTING?
We see it all the time. Every parent has grown up differently. They’ve had different childhood experiences, life experiences and even parenting experiences. And sometimes that’s confusing when we talk about the idea of parents being on the same page. They think this means one has to be 'wrong' and one has to be 'right'. People don’t want to 'budge' or 'give' because they can get very defensive about their own upbringing and their own views.
But it’s really not like that. It’s unlikely that parents are going to completely agree on everything when it comes to their parenting philosophy. While it’s fantastic if people can discuss all this before they have children, in that moment when they’re dealing with kids’ behaviour it’s not the time to try to have that discussion. It’s especially not going to end well if both people are trying to figure out which one of them is 'correct' and that doing so will automatically make the other one incorrect. What it’s really about is how you’re going to work together to deal with the situation, and what you both want to happen as a result.
One type of family set-up where there’s a lot of potential for this kind of conflict is where you have a parent and a grandparent, or two parents from very different cultures, and they find it hard to see things from the other person’s point of view.
Sometimes you even get parents who’ll play the child off against the other parent, especially if you’re talking about families where there’s already conflict between the parents. We see this happening a lot of time when parents have separated and there are arguments over clothing, education, sports, social activities – and while it’s supposedly about the kids, it’s really about personal conflict between the parents.
IN THE MIDDLE, LOOKING UP
Sometimes it’s helpful for parents to try to see things from their child’s point of view. So for a child, parents are these big individuals – you literally look up to them.
One of my colleagues recently shared with me a very powerful story, about one of her earliest memories. She remembers being about three years old and looking up at her parents who were literally arguing over her – over the top of her head, but also about which one of them was right when it came to a particular parenting decision. Even as a very young child, she felt like it was her fault that her parents were fighting, because it was 'about her'.
If the child knows the argument is about them – and they’re aware of that even at a young age – it becomes extremely difficult for them. They feel torn in half. Getting a decision also becomes a really tumultuous process. The kid senses the tension between the parents, and either one or both parents can see the child’s upset – and now you’ve got a situation where parents start arguing about arguing!
A lot of parents assume children are too young to understand this kind of thing. But my feeling is that even if kids don’t understand every word, they’re taking it in and it affects them. I’ve seen even one- and two-year-olds really obviously affected by their parents having an argument. Some kids are really a lot more watchful than others. A few might not go away and do something else to avoid the situation, but there are many kids who’ll just sit there, playing or whatever but also absorbing what’s around them, and taking it all in. They definitely can tell when it’s about them.
Because the child loves both parents, it’s a bit like how you’d feel if your two best friends in the world started having a fight. You’d hate it, and just want them to get along!
TURNING IT ALL INTO A POSITIVE OPPORTUNITY
This is also a chance for parents to say, “Woah, this little person is looking up to me, to us – we need to remember that and try to really live up to that”. Parents take pride in being the person their child looks up to, so it can help when parents try to be the best they can be. Parents can stop smoking, or swearing, or fighting – because they recognise they want their children to look up to them.
So for a lot of people, thinking about all this is a way to stop and reflect on what we’re teaching children and what they’re learning. It’s a way to check in with yourself and say, “Am I doing what I want my child to learn and model?” And the great thing is, that’s not to make people feel terrible about any of this – there’s no such thing as the perfect parent, as Triple P reminds us – but for people to say, “I can make a few small changes and it’ll really have a great influence on my child’s future.”
Just a little postscript: If you feel like you’d like to know more about this topic, as well as reading Part 2 of this blog (next week), there are some other things you can do. Because I’d say for some people this blog might create a really strong emotional reaction, so I’d really recommend you talk to a health professional or someone else about that, or a Triple P provider, if you feel like you’d like some immediate help.