There is no question that working out appropriate discipline methods for any individual child is one of the biggest challenges of parenting. Added to the mix is that both parents need to be on the same page if the discipline is going to be consistent and effective. Co-parenting adds another level of complexity bringing with it additional issues that two-parent households may not have to consider.
Parents living separately is not a new phenomenon and is actually becoming more common. Current statistics show that 1 in 3 Australian marriages will end in divorce. But while divorce and separation signify the end of a union between two previously committed people, this ‘ending’ is far from a clean break from the other person when two people share children. The dynamic for these two people is expected to move from being equal partners in a relationship to ‘co-parents’ which, whilst a buzz word for our times, can have a range of meanings. In some relationships, it is an even split of parental responsibility with shared custody and joint decisions on everything major. For others, one parent may have little day to day involvement but the emotional connection to your child remains.
Regardless of the individual dynamics of each relationship however, you are a co-parent with another person for life, simply because you share your beautiful child. Unsurprisingly, co-parenting is viewed as a minefield for many, where two adults find themselves forced into continuing a relationship of sorts with a person that they no longer love and in some cases, severely dislike.
GOOD COP, BAD COP
Where the topic of discipline is involved, one side will often feel that they constantly need to play ‘bad cop’ whilst the other parent gets to be ‘the fun one’. Even in the best case scenarios, when children are living across two different homes, with two different parental personalities, a common obstacle that co-parents face is how to streamline or manage discipline. Creating effective discipline routines post separation is about learning to communicate with your co-parent and find common ground, or a commitment to stay on the same page so that your children feel the consistency of attitude being projected by both parents.
FORM A UNITED FRONT
In order to present this united front, a decision needs to be made early on regarding whether you can work together and form a united front with respect to shared boundaries and disciplinary guidelines for your child or children and how you will communicate about these issues going forward. Where possible, if you are at the beginning of your co-parenting journey, mediation or a session with a family therapist with your ex-partner can be helpful to discuss topics such as how to manage differences in disciplinary approaches and how to work together to back each other up, even when you disagree with the disciplinary actions or decisions you are backing up! The aim is to come out of this session with some ground rules for you and your ex-partner when it comes to discipline. These may include agreed upon acceptable consequences, how you want to communicate about your child’s behaviour whilst they are not in your care and setting some non-negotiable behaviour expectations that you can both honour when your children are with you. This shows your children that when it comes to parenting, you are working together and nothing has changed.
THE GOLDEN RULES
The golden rules all come down to the same non negotiables:
- Never criticise your child’s other parent in their presence and
- Your own emotion or feeling about your ex-partner needs to be put aside so that your child’s best interests always comes first.
- Remember that when you undermine your ex’s attitude to discipline, what your child hears is that it is ok not to listen to one parent when the other doesn’t agree (that can and may work to your detriment, too)!
Successful co-parenting where discipline is concerned requires respect for your co-parent, no matter what has happened in the past. If nothing else, it is about remembering that this human being is important to your child. When we have someone that we dislike, it is easy and often automatic to reject or criticise the way in which they deal with things. The danger here, is that when your child’s other parent makes a decision around discipline for your child, you reject it without thought, not following through with the disciplinary action that has been decided on, even if it is warranted and appropriate.
In many cases, separated parents simply don’t see eye to eye on discipline or behavioural expectations of the children, perhaps they never did! The solution here, is to either agree to disagree but back each other up, or, to come to terms with a reality of different rules in different households.
If you have decided you are going to back each other up when it comes to discipline, you must honour your partners disciplinary choices and consequences, especially when they spill into your time with your child. For example, if your child’s father has grounded your daughter for a week, when she comes to your house for the second part of said week, she needs to remain grounded until she has done her time. By honouring your ex-partners’ disciplinary decisions, your child learns that discipline and boundaries are firm across both households, creating a sense of security and stability for your child.
Of course there will be cases where you disagree with the consequences your ex has put in place for your child. In these instances, you can discuss with your ex why you think a consequence is inappropriate, but never in front of your child. When this conversation takes place, it is important to bear in mind that you weren’t there to witness what your child did and so you need to listen fully before objecting to the disciplinary method that was used.
INTRODUCING DISCIPLINE STYLES ACROSS TWO HOUSEHOLDS
One of the easiest ways to introduce the idea of varying discipline styles across the two households, is to have a set of house rules. These rules can change depending on whose home they are living in but need to be enforced effectively and consistently by the relevant parent. This can work well as kids will understand the concept that now that that mum and dad live in separate houses, there will be different house rules in each house. Kids will also learn and understand that the consequences for breaking the house rules in each house is different to the consequence for doing the same thing in their other parent’s house and this is normal and ok too.
I often recommend that parents create a visual chart of house rules that is placed in a prominent position, such as the fridge, so that they are clearly visible. The same goes for visual routine schedules and chore charts. This creates security and reliability of routine in each place but doesn’t dictate to the other parent that they have to follow the same lists!
It can be helpful for your co-parent to know what your rules and routines are and for you to know theirs. This allows you to each take ownership of the parent you want to be and champion the parent your ex is trying to be as well. This way, your children will understand that they are unable to play one parent against the other! If they question something at your house as being too strict or at their other parent’s house as being unfair, a respectful response such as ‘yes, that’s ok at dads house, but it is not ok at mums house’ is firm and will give your child the message that you will not criticise their father but you will also stand up firmly for your own house rules.
STAGES OF CO-PARENTING AND DISCIPLINE
There are different stages within the co–parenting journey when it comes to discipline and children feel them keenly. There is the start where it all becomes a little unruly and everyone finds their new normal, the implementation of the routines that are going to be set in the long term and eventually the rhythm of life takes over with changes and pitfalls depending on your children’s ages and stages. These moving parts are normal and should be embraced. It will give you the time and space to figure what you want in terms of discipline in your own home and hopefully the courage to parent in the way you want to!
Trust your instincts and do the best you can. Ultimately, the more consistent you can be in your home and your ex can be in theirs, the more secure your children will feel. If you and your ex can work together to teach your children right from wrong ( which is what discipline is all about), there are no better co – parents than that!