Why Youâre Fighting About the Kids

How to stop this from being your life

The game against one of the Cougars’ toughest rivals was over at 9:15 p.m., and her sons’ weeknight curfew was 10 p.m. But a text message from another player’s mom told Michelle they’d beaten the Eagles 22–0. And that zero on the “visitor” side of the scoreboard meant one thing: celebratory donuts. Luke, 17, and Duncan, 15, came home with mile-wide grins dusted with powdered sugar at 11:13,  just minutes before their father, Doug, came in from work.  “Why is the hood of the car still hot?” he bellowed, filling the doorway of the kitchen, where the guys and their mom traded high fives. Doug congratulated the boys on their shutout victory before taking their cell phones away for two weeks. But the real heat, between Doug and Michelle, came the next day after she gave the teens their phones back. It was no wonder they’d buck his authority knowing that, as always, their mother would side with them, Doug spat out angrily. The meltdown prolonged what had become a nuclear winter in the couple’s bedroom—the reason Michelle had insisted on counseling in the first place.

Two loving parents. Two completely different points of view. Sound familiar? Couples often come to sessions with me in heated conflict about the kids: Dad says, “Girls wear dresses—not hoodies—and there’s no way our daughter is shopping in the boys’ department and staying under my roof.” Mom says, “I love her, and if she’s struggling with gender issues, then we’ll struggle together.” Dad says, “CJ got accepted to a terrific music school. He loves his keyboard and will do great there.” Mom says, “If he majors in music, we could be supporting him ’til he’s 40. Let him go to community college for a year while he figures out a career path.” When it comes to our kids, there doesn’t seem to be room for compromise. We care too much about their success to raise them any way but right.

And there’s the rub. Our view of the “right” way to raise children has a lot to do with how we were brought up. That may differ widely between you and your spouse. Such was the case with Doug and Michelle. As a boy growing up in a blue-collar Arkansas town, Doug learned that a parent is a boss, not a buddy. Just like his own father, who’d been hardened by the strictures of segregation and would lay down the law if his sons fell out of line, Doug became a disciplinarian. Michelle was more of a diplomat. Raised in a middle-class suburb of New York City, disciplinary issues were solved with dinner-table discussions intended to empower the children to develop judgment. Doug felt emasculated—and betrayed—because his wife and teen sons had defied his authority. Michelle felt that Doug had overreacted to the curfew violation and had been heavy-handed with discipline.

I pointed out to this couple that they have different parenting styles: They were fighting about which approach should be used. What had gotten lost here was that their values, visions and dreams for their children were exactly the same. Doug and Michelle both wanted their sons to grow up to be safe and successful. In a discussion focused on those values, they began questioning each other’s intentions instead of criticizing actions. Doug took the cell phones away because when young males start bucking in a test of wills, you shut ’em down quickly or face total disorder. Michelle gave them back not to thwart her husband, but out of concern for her sons’ security. In the next weeks, as the couple found some common ground, the tension eased. They consulted each other instead of acting unilaterally. Rather than fighting in front of the kids, they kissed and held hands. Now when disagreements crop up, Doug and Michelle keep in mind that conflict can be healthy if it leads to a shared solution.

Work Things Out

> Don’t fight in front of the kids.

> Take the discussion to a “neutral” room in the house (such as the guest room) or drive to a nearby park.

> Have a code word or phrase (such as “nuclear”) for when things are getting too heated and it’s time to take a break.

> Use questions instead of accusations.

> Focus on desired outcomes. There is more than one route to success.

> Consult a neutral third party, such as a counselor, if needed.

Read more in the July 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine on page 85.