Alicia and Jose are raising three kids; Miguel, 12, Mercedes, 10, and Micah, 8. Miguel and Mercedes are generally doing well in school, socially, and at home. The youngest, Micah, is a different story. He argues back every time he’s told to do something, he hates to go to bed and often still climbs into bed with his parents sometime during the night, and he can’t be trusted to complete the most basic tasks without getting distracted. He also cries or rages more often than the older children did at his age.
On their first visit with me to discuss their wayward son, Alicia complained that she is always the “bad cop” while Jose tends to back off and let Micah have his way. If she doesn’t put Micah to bed herself (always a lengthy and stressful ordeal), it just won’t happen. When she sets consequences with Micah, she can never be sure that Jose will follow through-just a week prior she told Micah he’d lost TV privileges for a week due to his back-talk, and when she came home late from work two nights later, there he was-watching TV with Dad in the next room.
Alicia says to me in a desperate voice, “We’re supposed to be a team with the kids; why aren’t we ever on the same page?” When she says this, Jose gets an odd expression on his face. He looks both uncomfortable and exasperated. When I drew his attention to this, he told me he thinks his wife worries too much about all the kids and that she’s way too hard on Micah, who, after all, is only 8 years old.
Parents and couples often envision a relationship that operates like a “team”. What does this comparison really mean? When clients say they should be a team, they are referring to a state of unity and agreement as they confront the challenges of life. In their team concept, there’s no room for disagreement. In fact, disagreement feels like betrayal and is often taken very personally. As I explained to Micah’s parents, the team analogy does hold up for parenting issues, but only if it’s thought through more carefully:
All teams are made up of multiple players. Each player has the same goal to win the game but has a different job description and skill set to accomplish that goal. A great player has great skills for his position on the team, and an understanding of how to use those skills for the good of the team, even at expense of his personal glorification. A play can be ruined if the shortstop interferes with the second baseman. But a play can be saved if the shortstop covers second when the second baseman runs for a ball between first and second.
We love watching preschoolers play sports precisely because they don’t have role clarity. It’s fun to watch them run up and down a field in a big, chaotic clump. Or else they each stand around, waiting for someone else to go after the ball. Either way, they sure don’t get a lot accomplished! Parents who don’t have a clear vision of their role or their goals operate more like the preschoolers than the professional baseball team.
It is challenging when parents don’t agree on parenting issues, but if handled maturely it is manageable. When Alicia comes home from work and Micah hasn’t followed her instructions regarding TV privileges, she can follow through with appropriate consequences. If Micah says, “Dad let me watch TV!” she can say, “Yes, but I had already put you on restriction, and now you have broken that, so you’ll go an extra day with no TV.” She knows what her job is on the family team, but she can’t control how her husband handles his position on the team. Getting hung up on what he is or isn’t doing will take her focus from what she believes she needs do and give Micah a wonderful opportunity to play one parent against the other.
Couples should discuss their vision, or goal, for the family. Healthy, happy, well-adjusted children and peace in the home are reasonable “team goals”. But if they disagree about how those goals should be achieved, as parents often do, then Micah will have different rules with each parent. No couple lines up exactly on parenting issues, just like we don’t on money, sex, in-laws or any other “hot topic.” Children are perfectly capable of learning this and operating accordingly. School and home have different rules, right? Kids figure that out with no trouble. They can accommodate different parenting styles as well. When each parent is operating within his or her own set of values, keeping the family goals in mind and not reacting to each other, it’s a winning strategy for the whole team.