Q. My wife and I have been separated for 7 months and are in the process of divorcing. We have very different rules for our 5-year-old daughter. For example, there are different bedtimes, different morning routines, and different behaviors that each of us do not tolerate. I think my daughter ‘s mother is much too lenient with her. Consequently, my daughter thinks she can get away with murder at my house. She always complains, “But Mommy lets me stay up until 9:00” By the time she adjust to being at my house, it is time for her to go back to her mom’s house. Do you think it is ok to have different rules at each house? Wouldn’t it be better if my ex-wife and I had the same rules at each of our houses? How do I get my ex-wife to see that the things she is doing are not good for our daughter?
A. Optimally, it would be very helpful to your child if the rules were identical in both households. However this is usually not possible. Overall it is not so important that you agree but that each of you are consistent with your own rules. Even in two-parent households in which the parents agree on most issues, there are differences in the way each parent treats the child and differences in the types and degrees of behavior that are tolerated. Children learn to adjust to these differences and behave accordingly. If they know they can get that special toy in the store by whining long enough even though mom has already said no, the will do it with mom but not with dad (with whom this behavior has proved futile.) Likewise if Dad gets angry or gives consequences for not leaving the playground after 3 reminders that Mom does after 2, the child will leave when Dad is ready to give his third reminder and when Mom is ready to give her second. Children know these patterns unconsciously and are usually not confused by the difference between two parents.
What is confusing however is if each parent is not consistent. If one day it is ok to continue playing until the third reminder and the next day for inexplicable reasons (for the child), it is not. It is equally hard if the child does understand the differences. For example, “if mom is in a bad mood I am not allowed to roughhouse but if she is in a good mood roughhousing is encouraged.” This puts a burden on the child to be continually watchful of the parent’s mood so that they will know what to expect. The type of vigilance this requires of the child is extremely stressful and not conducive to optimal development.
There are some areas in which it is more important for the parents to have similar rules. Bedtimes and mealtimes are two examples. Biologically children’s bodies adapt to particular rhythms of sleep and (to some extent) eating. It is very hard on a child to have to adapt to going to bed at 8:00 three nights of the week and 9:00 four nights per week because of the way the body tends to expect sleep or food at a particular time based on the pattern of previous days.
Therefore, it would be helpful if you and your child’s mother can agree on a bedtime that is in the best interest of you child and both stick with it. This is more important if there is joint physical custody in which the child spends approximately half of each week in each parent’s household and much less important if the child is spending every other weekend with the non-custodial parent. It the two of you cannot come to an agreement, get a consultation from an outside professional source.
Other than the exception listed above, it is far more important that the parents not belittle or criticize the other parent’s style than it is that they have exactly the same rules. If you child complains about something her mother allows but you do not, it is much better to respond, “It must be difficult that the two of us have different rules. But while you are here, this is the rule in this house.” On the other hand, it is very hurtful to the child to say, “I can’t help it if you mother continues to make bad decisions about…” Children perceive even subtle put-downs and are very torn-up emotionally by them.
Here are some final comments about this issue. 1) Many of the problems couples have while they are married remain unresolved after divorce. Unfortunately, these problems continue to be acted out with each other around the issues with the children. It is very difficult therefore to keep from making derogatory comments about the ex-spouse to the child because it is at those moments when the memory of the issues comes back in full force. Despite the difficulty this entails, it is very important to refrain from doing this. When parents do this it makes the child feel as if they must make a choice about who to love. 2) Children may try to spell out the differences between parenting styles in an attempt to understand the reason for divorce and the difficulties and differences that remain between the parents. Also, children are masters at using weaknesses in a situation to get what they want. These are probably two of the reasons your daughter complains to you that her mother allows her to stay up later than you do.
Note: This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994. The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.