The last time I wrote I told you about a study of families with toddlers and the ways that families transmitted pro-social and aggressive behaviors. One of the mechanisms by which toddlers developed aggressive responses to peers was parental undermining of each other.

Parental undermining refers to one caregiver challenging another parent’s direction to a child. It goes something like this: Mom: Twyla, it is time to get ready for bed. Please, put the blocks back in box. I will help.  Dad: Oh! It is not that late. We can finish our house.  Lest you find me gender stereotypical, let me give another example. Dad: Jill, keep the chicken on the tray. You can’t have any more. So, eat all you want because you are done, if you throw it off the tray.  Mom: Don’t be ridiculous. She is a baby. They throw food. She’ll starve your way.

Surely babies with two-word sentences won’t remember these exchanges. They lack the cognitive capacity to remember the exchanges. Toddlers can’t go to school and talk about Mom and Dad fighting. That doesn’t mean that toddlers aren’t learning and remembering. They are learning that one or both of their parents cannot be trusted to set rules that are important. They are learning that sometimes you can dismiss an adult’s command.

How do you get out of these situations? Watch how you think, how you talk, and how you feel. Underneath almost all anger is the thought that someone else should have, must, would do something if they were _____ (smart enough, caring enough, respectful enough, grateful enough). When the anger rises, when the dismissive comment comes up, take a step back.  Wait. Take several deep breaths and then ask questions to try to understand where the other person is coming from. Try your best to negotiate the rule or expectation, and give the command together.

Can you do this alone? Nope, not for long. You might be able to let go in the moment. Too many moments not talking through your expectations for the baby, your rules, your discipline with the other parent will add up. You might create a world with rapidly changing rules, and weak expectations, and random consequences even if you never undermine.

Try learning your co-parent’s beliefs and patterns in the same way that you are learning your baby’s. Show the children that what matters is  not who gets their way but how it is decided. Come together and decide. Think of this as practice for when your child wants to negotiate the rules.

What! you say. Is not discipline our setting the rules and the child complying?  Sort of. In our culture, we negotiate. We resolve conflict by taking into account reasonable accommodations. We give to get. I assure you, you want your child to learn to give to get.

Peaceful families teach for life.

If you are interested in seeing a parent negotiate with a young child check out www.thinkkids.org  in the parents section are a series of video clips. Plan B comes from Collaborative Problem Solving and is shown in Video 3.  Enjoy.