Parenting on the same page: does mum always know best?

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

One of the biggest causes of arguments among couples is parenting, and a common trigger for disagreements is one parent telling the other how best to do the job. You might think this problem is a symptom of FIFO living, but actually it is typical of all two-parent households where one parent is the main carer of children. (And since mums still predominantly take on the role, this article is written about mums telling dads how to parent. If your situation is reversed, just reverse the terms!)

In my work as a psychologist, I hear many examples of mums telling dads how to parent. Consequently, the dad feels criticised and pulls back from parenting. Why is this so common? Probably because mums still handle most of the day-to-day decision making and discipline. As a result, they do tend to know (and without too much thought) what the routine is, what the current issues are, where the favourite cup can be found and what’s likely to cause a tantrum this week.

All this knowledge can give mum the idea that she knows best about parenting. This leads to two things: first, mum frequently telling dad the ‘right’ way to do things with the children; second, dad pulling back from parenting as a result.

It’s not too hard to see how each of these actions is self-perpetuating – one leads to the other and so on and so on. Ultimately, it can lead to mum feeling unsupported and dad feeling ‘useless’ … and possibly disconnected from his kids.

While it is obvious that more time spent with the kids will lead to greater practical knowledge, it doesn’t need to cause to friction. With a little effort, couples can ‘parent’ from the same page and both play an important role, even if one spends more time with the children.

Here are some tips:

  • HAVE a conversation with your partner about your parenting styles and values. Do you both agree on basic issues such as expectations of the children and discipline style? Do you have the same ideas, for example, about what sorts of behaviours should be disciplined? Are you on the same page when it comes to punishment? Do you have the same understanding of what is ‘normal’ behaviour for any given age? If you answered no to any or all of these questions, this is the place to start. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is important for you and your partner to come up with an approach to parenting that you can agree on and ideally be on the ‘same page’ about. See below for ideas on how to get on the same parenting page.
  • IF you do basically agree, then mum needs to back off and let dad find his own feet with parenting. This can be very hard for mums to do. It is sometimes easier to leave dad to it entirely by going out and leaving him to parent for the whole day (this applies from bubs through to teens). Mum also needs to be very mindful of how she communicates with dad about practical information related to the children – there is a big difference between helpful practical advice (“Tom has changed to one sleep a day now” or “Molly can drive herself to work now”) and thinly veiled criticism that is frequently heard between couples. On this note, I know I say it frequently about FIFO families but it is so important … if you are feeling resentful or unsure about the FIFO lifestyle decision, you need to have an upfront conversation with your partner. It is so easy to let resentment or uncertainty about FIFO leak into thinking (and perhaps conversations) about parenting. I’d be surprised if thoughts such as “Well if you were here more you’d know…..” or “if I didn’t have to go away I’d know” didn’t occasionally raise their unhelpful heads. Talk about it! Express your thoughts and feelings to your partner and allow them to do the same.
  • DEPENDING on the age of the child, it can be left up to them to communicate directly with dad. If needed, mum can help this process in the early stages. For example, instead of mum telling dad “he doesn’t like that toy anymore” (which can make dad feel out of the loop and on the back foot) she can positively help by encouraging the child to “show dad which toy you want”. It may seem easier and harmless for mum to become involved, even taking over the task or speaking for the child. But over time this can set up a relationship pattern in which mum is always the ‘middle man’ between dad and child and this is ultimately quite dissatisfying for everyone involved. A good rule of thumb for all relationships is to keep the communication direct (from one person to another) rather than involving a third person.

On a positive note, the FIFO lifestyle actually provides a great opportunity for parents to be on the same page. From my observations, FIFO families can be some of the best communicators because they make the time to discuss the issues instead of assuming that dad will ‘just know’. One family I know made time at the start of every break to catch up with purely practical parenting issues. This was also very helpful in sending a strong message to the kids that mum and dad were a united team. Also, the FIFO lifestyle provides the opportunity for dad to be home for whole days, so he can see and take part first hand in day-to-day parenting.

‘Getting on the same page’ with parenting is a column in itself, but the most basic tip I have is to BOTH read some parenting books. It might not be fun or interesting, and it might not be ‘your thing’, but books like these can be very useful for reaching agreement on how to parent your children. I’d recommend:

Parent Effective Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Dr Gordon
  • 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for 2-12 Year Old, by T Phelan
  • Ages and Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development by Schafer and Digeronimo
  • Complete Secrets of Happy Children by S Biddulph
  • The Seven Principle of Highly Effective Families by S Covey
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