United Family

I’ll confess it now. I hold heretical views on some parenting issues, and particularly on the most sacred tenet of all: the united front. Like consistency, it is assumed to be common sense and rarely controversial. I have some strong disagreements with the whole concept, though.

First, the whole point is (as Alfie Kohn points out) a united front against the child. It is part of the whole adversarial mindset that pits the parents against the children in war. The theory goes that if the child senses any weakness, he will attack you at your most vulnerable level of disagreement, so you are bound to an alliance with your partner in order to create a show of strength. My children aren’t adversaries, though. We are allies. Our family is on the same team. We aren’t at war with our kids and we are not afraid of evil motives on their part.

Secondly, it is inauthentic. The united front supposes that you and your partner actually disagree to some extent, but are backing each other up from a sense of obligation and/or fear. Do I really want to teach my children to ignore their own conscience and go along with others to prove their relationship? Is that the model of conflict resolution that I want them to follow? Five or ten years from now, I want to know that my kids feel comfortable standing firm in their own convictions, whether their friends agree or not.

Along with the united front, consistency tends to get held up as a gold standard for parenting. However, kids are smart and adaptable. Our kidlets know that Dad lets them watch some shows on TV that I wouldn’t, and that I have a higher tolerance for messes than he does. That hasn’t caused any problems for us. Whichever parent is more actively taking care of them at that moment decides the boundaries. If consistency is creating conflict, then it would be foolish to cling to it. I want my children to be humble enough to recognize when a decision was wrong or is no longer working and to be adaptable and flexible enough to search for a better one.

The parental united front builds a brick wall, with the children locked out on the other side. When you change that to a united family, an entirely different view of problem solving and collaboration opens up. You are forced to confront your true needs and reasons behind a direction. When those are clear, then you work together as a united family—parents and children—against the problem, with a large opening to see fresh solutions that were outside our own narrow perspective. It is amazing how talking through an issue can help everyone gets their needs met.

When we are caught in an “us against them” mindset, it is easy to feel as though we have to prove our loyalty by choosing one over the other. Seeing us all as part of the same team means that my spouse isn’t losing if I disagree, and my children aren’t defeating us. Instead, we come to an agreement that makes every member on our team win. Rather than losing respect, we all wind up gaining it.

What if one partner refuses to do that? Then you learn how to have healthy boundaries and grow from that point. If the parents’ relationship is so fragile that any disagreement will cause damage, then I suspect the damage is already done. Clinging to a facade won’t help either of you, and it won’t model a healthy relationship for your children. Get counseling—alone, if your partner refuses—and learn how to be healthy yourself, and see how your relationship can become healthy from there.

The goal is a healthy family where disagreement is a springboard to finding solutions, not where it is feared as being hurtful for anyone. Learning how to navigate conflict and find respectful ways to disagree and work through the issues is an incredibly important life skill. It must be acquired through practice. Tear down any false united front that causes you to be inauthentic and focus on building a united family where every member is united in the endeavor to meet each person’s needs.

Dulce is learning to walk in grace with her amazing husband and four wonderful kidlets. She is a perpetual provider of magic mami milk who practices gentle discipline, shares a family bed, homeschools, teaches Spanish, and blogs at Dulce de leche. Each day brings plenty of iced coffee and a fresh lesson in trusting her children, herself and the Love that surrounds and fills us. Sometimes it feels like livin’ a vida loca, but overall, life is incredibly sweet.

This article has been edited from a previous version published at Dulce de leche.

5 Responses to United Family

  1. Sheila  

    I wish this was more talked about. No one (myself included) wants to blog publicly about conflict with their spouse, but it’s a real problem when it happens. My husband and I disagree on a lot of parenting issues. Our general goals are the same, but often we find ourselves arguing about the details. He thought that I should parent his way, even when I was doing the majority of the childcare, and that didn’t seem fair to me — him making the decisions, and me doing the work, work made more difficult for me because of his decisions. So I told him, “I’m not trying to cut you out of the loop. When you’re with the kids you can do it your way. But when I’m with the kids, I’m going to do it my way.” It’s not a perfect solution, and I’ve had to stop myself many times from interfering when he’s with them, but it seems to work better than any of the alternatives. And the kids don’t seem confused by it — they know the difference between me and Dad.

    • Sheila  

      That is exactly how we came to the same conclusion! I think it’s unfair to expect me to parent by someone else’s standards. At the same time, I had to admit it was unfair to ask my husband to parent in a way he didn’t agree with either. So we each do it our own way. In time our two ways have gotten more similar as we’ve picked up the best of each other’s “style.” With other things I really do have to bite my tongue. A little more TV on the weekends won’t hurt in the long term even if it drives me crazy at the time.

  2. Amy Phoenix  

    Thank you, Dulce. This is an important topic and I feel grateful you have written about it. 🙂

  3. Katir

    Dulce, keep writing. You have words and experience that are nourishing to hear.

    I especially enjoyed your post about discipline and the strong willed child. Valuing connection through the process . . .


  4. simon

    While I like the sentiment, I have to disagree to some extent. I watched my cousin play divide-and-conquer, and she ended up ruling the roost. There was so little solidarity between the parents that this ended up driving a real wedge between the parents.

    While I agree that my kids are my allies in the long run, I also know that it’s important for us, as adults, to set boundaries and parameters, and for our children to grow up with a certain amount of structure built into their lives. Part of that is setting house rules that my wife and I agree to enforce.

    You’re right, there are some things that we do when mom’s not around, and some things they do when I’m not around, but those are more like different activities, amount of TV, etc. But those variations are still within the agreed-upon house boundaries.