Even when, on occasion, the decisions became, “Please disregard the flag, there was no penalty”—an apparent reversal—those not in charge of making the decision were not privy to the discussion. And you can imagine that the various judges in the huddle were not in total agreement about the original observation leading to the flag. The same holds true in baseball when umpires “hold court” following a controversial decision.

However, what would happen if players and coaches witnessed the decision makers openly disagreeing about a judgment to be rendered? How would witnessing arguing and frustration among these judges impact the confidence level and trust players and coaches had in those in charge?

When parents, out of frustration, disagree in front of their "players"—the children—about how best to handle a particular situation, it can undermine the confidence those children have in their parents’ ability to set limits and teach. In the process, some children become anxious, lose confidence in themselves or even assume guilty feelings for having “caused” parents to fight. This can lead to children distancing themselves from their parents, not trusting their judgment or desiring to be in their presence.

Other children enjoy the fireworks and learn how to use these situations to their advantage. Some even become clever enough to “set up” their parents by playing one against the other, introducing issues which will lead to turmoil and result in their obtaining what they want. And if they succeed in getting an original, “no” reversed, the behavior that accomp-lished this feat becomes reinforced and will recur in the future. (“Upon further review, Billy was in bounds by finishing all his homework and may go to the mall with his friends…even if my spouse doesn’t think so!”).

Often, the problem is one of failing to bring long-term consequences into focus. Our behavior is most controlled by immediate events. When something does not require immediate attention, it is frequently placed on a back burner in service of those things that may be considered crises. But addressing life as an emergency—a fire drill—can restrict the range of useful choices available. Instead, what becomes important is simply putting out the fire, NOW!

Such is the case when parents fail to discuss or plan how specifically they would handle child-rearing situations before they are an issue.

Certainly spouses will agree that they don’t always agree on parenting issues. But it is quite another thing to sit down and hammer out the glitches between them so in the presence of the children when things happen, decisions occur as planned, unilateral, congruent events handed down by the family “field judges.”

Thus, the most prudent way to reduce parental disagreements in front of the children is to plan ahead, introduce various child scenarios and try to organize a cooperative and fair intervention that represents a compromise between two dissenting parental opinions. However, children are clever and the best mapped interventions will likely not cover all the territory! At times, children will still behave in ways requiring parental intervention that was not discussed. In such instances, to avoid losing credibility:

  • Call a time-out . Discuss the situation briefly with your spouse in private, if possible. This rather than undermining your spouse in front of the children. The latter often becomes a vehicle for an angry parent to discharge anger. But it rarely accomplishes anything useful pertaining to child discipline, parental cooperation or harmony between parent and child. For example, if a child asks to have a privilege or tangible during a family meal and unlike your spouse, you believe him too young, spoiled, undeserving, rather than arguing over dinner simply say, “Mom (Dad) and I will discuss this after dinner and get right back to you, okay?”
  • Don’t meddle in the middle. Sabotaging your spouse by getting caught in an ongoing dispute with your child can damage credibility. Assum-ing the absence of serious abuse, it is better to remain neutral thereby reinforcing the validity of a parent’s judgment and teaching a child to respect…by example!


Phillip Massinger