Parenting: Get United or Get Divided
by Jonathan D. Sherman, LMFT

Raising children ranks the top of the list with sex and money as source for marital conflict. In a nationwide survey conducted by Stanley and Markman, children’s issues ranked second (behind money) as the thing that couples argue about the most. In second marriages, the subject is even touchier, with kids (32 percent) beating finances (23 percent) as the number-one cause of marital conflict.Kids are masters at pitting one parent against the other. Here are some tips on how to work together presenting a united front in your parenting.

Guiding Principles

“Divide and Conquer”
6-year-oldTommy wants a Popsicle and mom says, “No,” Tommy has a problem. To solve this problem he asks Dad. If Dad says, “Yes” his problem is solved and he has learned a skill he can use again when a similar dilemma arises.

Not that big of a deal, right?

Fast-forward ten years. 16-year-old Tommy now wants to borrow the car to go to the movies with his friends who you suspect are a bad influence on him. Dad said “No,” but Mom said, “Yes.” Mom and Dad then go the rounds because Dad thinks it is a big deal and Mom thinks he is, once again, overreacting. While Mom and Dad are fighting Tommy grabs the keys and quietly slips out the door.

That your child plays “divide and conquer” is not a sign that you have a bad kid. In fact, that your child has learned to play one parent off the other means you have a kid worth keeping. Thank goodness that your child’s brain is functioning normally! Children’s brains are wired for learning and problem solving. Tommy, like most kids, has learned that there are some payoffs they get for “splitting” their parents: 1. It helps them get what they want, 2. They can gain power in a situation they otherwise wouldn’t be able to control, and 3. Once Mom and Dad are fighting it gets the focus off of themselves. Whatever the payoff, the result is the same: parents feel frustrated, angry and ineffective. The task for parents is to help them use their brains appropriately.

“Unite and Conquer”
The solution, then, is not to trade your kid in for a more obedient and compliant model. The solution is to get united. My sister tells the story of when one of her friends was playing at our house as kids. The friend asked my sister if they could go do something or other. They went to ask my mother who refused their request. My sister’s friend said, “I know, let’s go ask your dad.” My sister, in her most dejected and frustrated tones replied, “We can’t. They’re united!” My sister had learned in her home what her friend had not learned from her parents: you can’t get around united parents.

Practical Techniques for United Parenting

“Present a United Front.”
The child must learn that splitting his parents against each other will never get him what he wants. It is really quite simple. You and your spouse must agree that any attempt to get the other parent’s say-so after being told no by the first parent will simply, and every time, result in your child not getting what she asked for. This requires a firm resolve as sometimes you will have to stand united when otherwise one of you may have acquiesced. When children know their parents can set limits and keep them they feel secure, even if on the surface they are upset. A national survey of graduating high school seniors found that more than 90 percent wished their parents loved them enough to have disciplined them more. Also, a united front increases the effectiveness of all the other parenting approaches and techniques you use.

A united front should include both parents; divorced parents, especially, should learn valuable co-parenting techniques. Together and single parents can involve select relatives and friends, a counselor, clergy and/or a support group as part of their united front.

“Planning Makes Perfect.”
Decide ahead of time how the both of you will handle difficult situations with your children. Anticipate problems and play “stop-gap.” This is where you look for ways your kids can get around you discipline and how you will “stop-up” those gaps.

“Refuse Undermining.”
Make a choice as parents to not undermine each other in front of you children. To say something like, “I sided with you, but Mom won” makes both of you look foolish in your child’s eyes.

“Close the Door, Please.”
While it is okay for children to witness their parents have and solve their differences so they can learn to do the same, it is not okay for children to witness their parents argue about them. The reason for this is simple. If they see the conflict between you about them, they gain tactical data on where best to strike in their next effort to split you. When it comes to the kids, discuss the issue behind closed doors, figure it out, and come out presenting a united front.

“Does Your Management Team Know Its Policies and Procedures Manual?”
Every company has one set of rules, their “policies and procedures,” that every employee is expected to follow. When everyone is on the same page the company is able to run smoother and there’s less conflict about what or how things should be done because expectations are clear. Churches and sports teams do the same. When there is a conflict everyone can defer, and refer, to the same rules versus getting stuck in arguments that go nowhere. Most organized groups do this. Families rarely do. Parents are the management team of the family. Decide on your discipline rules as a team and abide by them consistently. If you cannot come to a compromise that works, do what companies do when they get stuck: hire a consultant. Seek help from a neutral third party whether that be clergy or counselor. Keep friends and family out of it.

“Learn and Do What Works.”
In my profession, I have the opportunity to keep up on the latest research and read many books and articles on the best parenting practices. There are many excellent approaches and techniques that work really well. What I consider the gold standard of parenting approaches is “Parenting with Love and Logic,” by Jim Fay and Foster Cline, MD. Whatever approach or book you choose to use, do choose one and stick to it.

“Payoffs for Everyone!”
By uniting as parents everyone wins. Kids learn boundaries, respect for themselves and others, that the way to get what one wants is by working within the rules, they feel secure and they learn a great model to take into their own future parenting (a.k.a. The “Monkey See, Monkey Do” Principle). Parents gain seeing their children learn and experience the above. They also they improve their marriage and increase their confidence in parenting. Sounds like a good deal to me. Believe it or not, it is more doable than you may think.

Watch future columns for more strategies for creating greatness in your relationships.

Jonathan Sherman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Consultant specializing in creating "greatness in relationships." He is experienced in assisting people learn to improve their marriages, their parenting and themselves through skill development, life coaching, overcoming depression and anxiety, stress and anger management, and addiction recovery. He teaches extensively on a wide range of relationship topics. He is the founder of Bardos Relationship Consulting. He is married to a skillled husband trainer who has truly earned her keep. They live in eternal bliss (okay, fairly peaceably) with their four children in American Fork, UT. You may reach him at 801.787.8014, or at
Parenting Experiences
How have you developed a united front with your children? Send your ideas to and I'll post them here.

Subscribe to the
Great Relationships eZine!
Get the latest articles, tips, ideas and suggestions on parenting, marriage, family and self.

It takes less than ten seconds. Just click here to subscribe.

This article provided courtesy of Bardos Relationship Consulting• 801.787.8014 •