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Team parenting presents united front

| Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

Sharon Morris likes to get up early, be punctual, and have everything organized. Her husband, Sheldon Morris, likes to sleep in, be laid back and take it easy.

Likewise, as parents, the Morrises have conflicts in styles, with Mom being more strict and Dad being more lenient with the kids: Elias, 5; Seth and Simon, 6; Leah, 11; Sydney, 13; and Kate, 18. Sharon Morris likes for the kids to do their homework as soon as they walk in the door from school, while Sheldon Morris wants them to have downtime and relaxation.

"I'm not here a lot of the time to enforce bedtime and homework rules; he doesn't exactly adhere to them most times," says Sharon Morris, 42. She works as a nurse full time, while Sheldon Morris, 44, is a stay-at-home dad. "I can check in and see if things are going the way they should."

The couple try to reach compromises. For instance, the younger kids have to do their homework right away, while Leah and Sydney can have some computer and television time first.

Although couples may be compatible as mates, some degree of conflict in parenting styles is almost inevitable, experts say.

"When you have two individuals that come together to form a new family, they have two different perspectives," says Dayna Jornsay-Hester. She is the community education coordinator for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "When two individuals come together and have a child, they're bringing their own individual experiences to the job of parenting.

"Most of us tend to parent, in some respect, the way that we were parented," she adds.

Yet, to parent effectively, spouses must find common ground and, as much as possible, parent as a team, she says.

Common conflicts in a marriage are differences over discipline and behavior management of the children, Jornsay-Hester says.

One common pattern is a father thinking the mother is too easy on the children, and the mother thinking the father is too harsh, says Sandy Beauregard. She is a parent educator for ParentWISE, a Greensburg-based program of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania. If parents can't come to a united agreement about rules -- rather than saying some behavior is OK around dad but not around mom -- kids can get confused, she says.

"If you're living in the same house and you undermine someone else's authority, for young children, that's very confusing and leaves them in limbo," Beauregard says.

Jornsay-Hester says that children who get mixed messages often try to manipulate one parent against the other to get what they want.

"We don't want to give kids that much power," she says. "It's really not in their best interests.

"In the ideal world, kids are getting some consistent messages and behavior management from both parents," she says. "Kids are pretty adaptive. They know mom's limits, and they know dad's limits."

Debbie Flaherty, 54, of Turtle Creek says that she was more of the disciplinarian with her now-grown kids, Erin and Ryan. Her husband, Jeff, 55, was more laid back in his approach, she says. Ryan, Debbie Flaherty says, is a lot like her, and he often would have intense personality conflicts with his father.

"We would try not to fight in front of Ryan," Debbie Flaherty says. "If we disagreed on something, we gave each other the look that says, 'This is for later.'

"I would try to then see it through my husband's eyes, and try to have him understand where I'm coming from," she says.

Tips for teaming

To effectively team up with your spouse to be parents, despite differences you may have, consider these ideas.

• Pick your battles. Focus more on the major things, rather than the petty ones.

• Come up with a list of no more than 10 of the most pressing concerns, and make a list of household rules on which you both can agree.

• Never have disagreements in front of your children. Discuss conflicts away from the kids' eyes and ears. Whenever possible, present a united front to your children.

• Listen to your spouse's viewpoint and respect his or her perspective; you might learn something and change your mind.

• Be open to compromise, if either of you can't be won entirely over to the other's way.

• Decide who is the best parent to enforce rules. If a parent has anger-management issues, he or she shouldn't be the one to carry out the discipline.

• If you are divorced, it's OK for mom to have one set of rules, and dad another. But this should not be the case if you're married and living together, because it will confuse the kids in the household.

• If persistent disagreements about parenting are causing family conflicts and making it difficult to manage children's behavior, consider seeking professional counseling.

Sources: Dayna Jornsay-Hester of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh; Sandy Beauregard of ParentWISE

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