Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Family Matters
Tips for handling disagreements on child rearing

By Lynne Wikoff
Special to The Advertiser

A number of parents (make that moms) have made requests that I write about ideas for handling disagreements with their spouse about child rearing - requests usually made in hushed tones and with the caveat, "Please don’t use my name."

So we’ve turned to Dr. Al Arensdorf for suggestions on dealing with this sensitive issue. Arensdorf, a child psychiatrist, is medical director of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division of the state Department of Health, and the father of five grown children. His recommendations and thoughts:

Discuss your parenting concerns away from the heat of battle. It’s much easier to resolve issues when you aren’t feeling pressured. Also, while it’s fine for kids to know their parents disagree, angry confrontations can’t help but frighten them.

Agree not to undermine each other in front of the kids unless there’s a realistic concern about imminent danger. If mom says the kids can skip their bath and dad disagrees, there’s no real harm to waiting to discuss future bathing rules.

"Kids know their parents are different, and they don’t need 100 percent consistency. But when parents regularly undermine each other, children’s natural intelligence leads them to find ways to exploit those differences to get what they want," Arensdorf said.

When common ground for resolving differences is hard to find, parents should ask themselves these two equally important questions: Is this issue harmful to our child? Is it harmful to our relationship? If one parent answers "yes" to either question, the next question to ask is what adjustments can be made.

"It’s important to base parenting decisions on accurate information about children’s emotional and physical development," Arensdorf said. "Parenting classes, books and counseling can provide new information that will help parents find reasonable solutions that work for them and their children."

Also keep in mind that adjustments can be made in steps rather than in one giant leap.

For a variety of reasons, men are more likely than women to lack experience with young children. So, it helps when women encourage their husbands to be actively involved in parenting - taking care of their children (especially when they aren’t supervising), being involved in school activities, taking kids to doctors’ appointments.

This exposure will reinforce the father-child bond, provide the father with valuable hands-on experience and expose him to people who can provide additional perspectives on child-rearing issues.

"Failing to deal with their parenting disagreements can have serious consequences," Arensdorf said. "There may be marital problems that undermine family stability, which is surely not in the children’s best interest. Equally worrisome is that when parents regularly undermine each other, children learn to see not just those disagreements, but all directions from adults as meaningless in the face of their ability to get whatever they want. As a result, they may fail to develop the self-control that is critically important to healthy development."

Some other thoughts: Even when one parent is truly right, the errant parent won’t be won over with an approach that makes him or her feel like a nincompoop. (Also keep in mind that no one is right all the time and, even if you are, no one likes a smarty-pants.)

Keep your discussions focused on the topic at hand, and avoid uttering those sure conversation-stoppers "You always ... " and "You never ... ."

Finally, working together has another benefit: It demonstrates to children how adults can work through their disagreements in a positive way.

Two Hawaii parents, Lynne Wikoff and Kaohua Lucas, take turns writing the Family Matters column.

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