Answer: One of the biggest sources of marital stress is disagreement about child rearing. And, for children, major parental disagreement is a source of mixed messages and confusion that may undermine the attitudes, values and behaviors parents hope to teach. When a husband and wife come from different family backgrounds, it is common for them to disagree about behavioral standards and ways to discipline children. Parents also often disagree about the extent to which they indulge their children's wishes for money and material things. Sometimes this is exacerbated by the fact that one parent has greater responsibility for the day-to-day care and discipline of the children. Whatever the nature of the disagreement, it can have a significant impact on all family members, leading to marital dissatisfaction for the parents, confusion for a young child and an erosion of parental authority as children learn to play one parent against the other.
But your child is still young, and there is time for you and your husband to negotiate some agreement about the major aspects of child rearing. Here are the steps I'd suggest.
First, sit down together and list the aspects of child rearing on which you DO agree. For example, begin by stating the goals you have for your child (e.g. the way you want him to be when he's 10 or 15) and the values you want to teach him. Then, identify the standards of behavior that you agree are realistic for your 3-year-old and any child-rearing strategies you both think are important. (For example, although you may disagree about punishments, you may agree that you both should set an example of respect and honesty. Or you may agree that it's important to tell him you appreciate it when he does what you ask.)
Only after you've identified points of agreement, then begin exploring areas of disagreement. This works best at a time of calm. Talk openly and respectfully about what you each believe and where you learned those beliefs. Together, use your childhood memories to help you identify the things you want to repeat and the things you'd like to leave behind, understanding that nobody's childhood was perfect.
Identify child-rearing resources you can turn to, understanding that you may need to learn together some new strategies to replace the old ways that are a source of conflict. Sign up together for a parenting class or support group, or ask your librarian to suggest some practical books about raising preschoolers.
Agree to a regular check-in time when you'll talk calmly about how you're doing together as parents. Even though you achieve a more consistent approach, your child's behavior may not change immediately. Give new strategies a chance to take hold and your child a chance to learn that mom and dad are working together.
If, after giving these steps a good try, your conflict continues, seek professional counseling. It will be in the best interests of your child and your marriage to develop a plan as early as possible.
Editor's note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. You may fax them to (612) 624-6369 or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.