Psych Central

A dad complained to me that he and his wife have different disciplinary styles. He’s stricter; she tends to let things go.

And his wife will contradict him. The family will all be at the dinner table, and he’ll say something to one of the kids about their manners, and his wife will tell him to stop being so picky.

He’s worried that the kids are being confused, that inconsistent messages are harmful, that the kids won’t develop any manners because of the conflicting information.

Here’s what I said:

  • Kids (and all people) receive inconsistent messages all the time. Parents aren’t the only disciplinarians in a child’s world. Every teacher, coach, security officer at the mall, relative, other adult and other kid, exerts his or her own brand of constraints, and those rules often vary a great deal from one person, time and situation to another.
  • Human brains are made to handle complexity. You don’t have to train your kid the same way you train the family dog, with simple commands and consistent rewards. Your child will sort out all the messages from his or her environment and develop their own code of behavior (which will likely not coincide precisely with yours).
  • What IS harmful, in my opinion, is when parents demonstrate a lack of respect for each other’s differences. I think the wife needs to support her husband’s rules, so long as they aren’t ethically offensive or abusive. She should say: Daddy and I disagree on this point, but I respect his viewpoint.
  • It’s more valuable for parents to openly discuss their differences, in a civilized way, than it is to present a unified front. Dad wants elbows off the table, and Mom considers that rule picky and old-fashioned? What a great topic for family conversation! Mom and Dad can each explain why they feel the way they do, and the kids will gain a glimpse into their parents’ internal lives, upbringings and values.
  • Whose rule wins? That’s up for discussion as well. Maybe Dad’s rule wins out because he feels most strongly about his position, and people who love one another should try and honor each other’s strong desires. Maybe it’s Dad’s rules on weekdays and Mom’s on the weekends, or Dad gives in, or Mom gives in, or…whatever!

I think that listening to one another with patience and compassion, and then inventing solutions and finding common ground are far more valuable exercises for kids than is blind obedience to rules.

What do you think?

[Who Rules? photo of Napoleon's throne at Versailles, France]



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    Last reviewed: 31 Jul 2011

APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2011). Are Inconsistent Parenting Styles Harmful?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2014, from



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