Splitsville: Discussing Discipline

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Welcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand that didn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

In a sea of touchy parenting topics, discipline in the great white shark. Or the killer whale. Or monstrous mile-long squid. Whatever the most terrifying creature out there is, that’s discipline. People don’t even want to mention it. It strikes fear into the heart of honest and thoughtful conversations everywhere.

Discipline is just such a personal decision. And people are very passionate about their choices. To make matters even worse, discipline  demands consistency. It’s difficult enough for a married couple to agree on disciplining techniques and applying them evenly. For parents living in separate households, it becomes even more crucial and even more challenging.

So no matter how scary it is to discuss discipline, separated parents have to have this conversation. Will they be using time-outs? How long? Do they create incentive systems? Will they be talking through their problems? Is there ever a situation when its permissible to spank?

To make these decisions, both parents have to figure out what technique works best for them. Our basic instincts on discipline are normally a reaction to our own upbringing. Either we’re mimicking a system that our parents implemented with success. Or we’re avoiding discipline techniques that infuriated us as kids. No matter which way we’re compensating, most parents get an idea of how to make and enforce rules from their own childhood. So if you’re trying to decide what will work best for you, it might help to ask your parents why they made those decisions. The more information you can get, the better.

Once you’ve deciding how you want to move forward and you’re confident in rules and regulations structure you’ve meticulously laid out in your head, be prepared to change it a little. Both parents have to be able to agree on a system. That means that you and your ex must be able to compromise.  You cannot implement two different rules systems at two different households without confusing your children and creating lots of tension and resentment.

Be honest about the reasons behind your decisions. A friend of mine is completely against any spanking whatsoever. She abhors the very idea of physically punishing a child, no matter what the circumstance or behavior. But her parents used corporal punishment well into her tween years, which is highly discouraged by most childhood development specialists. Without getting into too many of the details, she believes that this has had a negative impact on her emotional development and the way she deals with anger and confrontation. So obviously, she never wants to spank children. She was pretty astonished when I told her that I had spanked my daughter before, when I was afraid for my daughter’s safety and felt unable to communicate the severity of say, running into the street or touching the stove. So if my friend and I were parenting a child together, we would have to decide if dangerous situations merited spanking. Given the personal history involved, we would probably decide that no, we’d never spank our kids. And as the other parent, I would have to find a different way to communicate “Danger!” to my toddler. (I realize that I needed to do this anyways. I’m happy to say that since my three year old can comprehend information a lot better, a stern conversation has worked wonders!)

But my point isn’t just about spanking, its that without a prior knowledge of this person’s history, their partner might never understand their aversion to a certain discipline technique. And if you’ve never sat down to talk about discipline at all, your ex might be doing things that you really don’t agree with. Like almost every other issue that separated parents will run into, the best solution for discipline differences is open communication. And you can’t just have this talk once, when your child is a toddler, and expect it to work for their rest of their lives. As children get older, their rules and punishments will change. The best thing for families to do will be to discuss discipline together, parents and children. The more unified the process is, the more stability and clarity it will create for everyone.

(Photo: Thinkstock)