Agree to Disagree? Or Agreeing to Agree

Us, August 2017

The following is from a parenting article I wrote in 2010. So much has changed - for one thing, my husband is now the primary caregiver and chief cook and bottle washer. He does the dishes and laundry and meal prep and school work with the kids now, and that pressure is off of me. He retired from his former career, and I'm the one in the office every day. While many of our roles have reversed, this article is still entirely relevant in our home.  Now I'm the one who has to be extra careful of communication and not overstepping the 'house rules'.

“Well, I think he needs to get his room completely clean before he gets to go outside.”

“And I think he has done enough and deserves a break, and his little brother should finish the room.”

Agree to disagree? Unfortunately, when it comes to parenting, that doesn’t work very well. Actually, it doesn’t work at all.

Obviously, if we want to raise children who respect their parents’ authority, being a united front is key. When we are consistent, we not only demonstrate that playing one parent off the other just won’t work, we also give them a strong sense of security. I want my children to know that no matter which parent they ask whatever question, they will get the same “right” answer. I want them to trust their parents to be fair and logical, even if that doesn’t mean they are going to get the answer they seek. They need to know that we have a structure of limits and guidelines that we stick to. We won’t bend our decision based on begging, nor will we be inconsistent in our answers.

In theory, that’s all pretty wonderful and ideal, isn’t it? And when it’s big-deal decisions, we discuss things with each other. Unfortunately, the united front thing doesn’t always seem to work the way we want it to when it’s the little things.

“Mama, can I have an apple?” I am asked as I fold laundry. I glance at the clock. It is 4:30. I worked from 6am to 1pm, and then home schooled until 4. There’s still a lot to do before I can start making supper tonight. I have to fold this laundry so that I can find my table, and then I need to clean our afternoon project detritus from the kitchen counters before I can cook. (My menu plan ran out and I didn’t think ahead for this week. What am I even making for supper?!)

“Yes, you may have an apple.” He thanks me brightly, and runs to the kitchen. Not a minute later, my husband heads to the cupboard for a glass, and glances at his son, who is about to bite into a shiny Granny Smith. Daddy’s voice is stern, the message loud and clear.

“Hey! No snacking right now. It’s too close to supper time.”

Confused and frustrated, my son whines, “But Mama said I could have an apple!” I call out that yes, I did, and Daddy sighs and throws up a hand. “I thought we said no snacking after 4?”

Ugh. Okay. This is a little issue. Small potatoes. It’s just an apple. However, it was me who bent our rule about snacktime because I knew that supper would be late. My partner in parenting didn’t know that, and in the process I inadvertently managed to undermine his authority. That whining thing? We don’t like that whining thing. And we definitely don’t like to see our kids correcting their parents!

So, what do we do?

There are bound to be a zillion small potato items that we don’t agree on. Maybe we haven’t discussed them in advance, and maybe our natural response, in the moment, to things like, “May I please go listen to an audiobook right now?” is going to be different. He might say, “No (you didn’t clean the yard like I asked you to),” and I might say, “Go ahead.” Or it might be me responding, “Absolutely not! You have piano to practise first,” while Daddy unknowingly gives the green light.

On most of the really big things, I think we have set pretty firm limits and keep each other in the loop of what is happening or what our thoughts are. Every now and then, though, one of the kids will ask something about an event coming up and whether we are going, and the first response from one of us is not what the other was planning. I think I’m beginning to answer my own question on this... but let me take a side for a moment.

Growing up, I was certain that my parents agreed on everything. I knew that the answer would be the same no matter who I asked. I knew that I could trust the first response, and unlike some of my friends with their parents, I knew I couldn’t ask one parent over the other to ‘massage’ the desired results. I know now that they didn’t in fact agree on everything (Gasp!), but how did they make it look like they did? How did they fool me into believing that they were a totally united front at all times, even when they weren’t?

Well, replaying scenes in my mind, I noticed that they deferred to one another. One would listen to the query of a child, and instead of answering right away, they might glance at the other for a visual cue. Sometimes they’d say, “I’ll get back to you.” At the time, I didn’t think this had to do with a mini-parenting conference, because those were conducted out of my hearing. Wisely, they didn’t make many of the mini-decisions without confirming their thoughts with the other. They were quick to listen and slow to speak. 

I think this comes back to that all-important communication between spouses. The daily “couch time” that we endeavor to make time for should include discussions on the little issues too, not just the big ones.

As for me, I need to remind myself to defer - to bring my husband in on the decision making. It is far too easy to let myself get into management mode at home, and just take care of all the details. How frustrating it must be to feel like you’re playing second fiddle to the Mama! I need to constantly remind myself to slow down, process the answer before I give it, and maybe even make my children wait for an answer!

While ruminating on my theory, I thought I should put it into practise. The day before yesterday, as I finished up some late home school work with my eldest son, my second son professed that he was hungry and wanted a snack. It was going to be a while before I’d be finished with the reading and phonics we were working through, and once again I didn’t have anything prepared to cook. The day had gotten away, again. Without dislodging myself from the La-Z-Boy,  under my 7 year old and his book, I said, “Could you please go ask Daddy to give me a quick idea for supper? Then I’ll let you know what we can do about eating.”

A moment later, J was in the kitchen, starting prep on burritos. By the time I finished reading with Bean, supper was on the table and we were all happy, at peace, and back on schedule.  Instead of rushing ahead with what worked for me in the moment, I gave J a chance to get involved, and his action relieved me of a lot of stress!

When it comes to setting boundaries, guidelines, or limits for our children, it’s not going to work if I’m the one calling all the shots. The teamwork required will manifest itself to my children in so many aspects of our daily life. When we agree to agree, we are able to move forward, united,  with purpose.

Our children, around the time that I wrote this article.