Q: My 3-year-old son spends half his time with me and my wife, and the other half with his mother. My ex-wife and I have different approaches to discipline. For example, my son gets away with more when he’s with his mom and I’m not sure how to handle that.
I’m also concerned that because his mother lets him do more, my son will prefer her home to ours. What can we do to minimize his confusion about discipline from home to home? And how do we make sure he is happy with us even though we are stricter about rules?
These are tough issues that many blended families face at one point or another. Being sensitive to these differences and the potential impact they may have on your son is an important first step. Children thrive when there is consistency between their two homes and good communication among all the adults involved.
First off, have no fear that your son may not like your home as much because of the rules and limits you set. As long as they are age-appropriate, limits make children feel safe and secure. And while he may not act or look happy when you impose a consequence, setting limits lets him know he matters to you—that he is loved.
Here are some other ways to make sure your son feels comfortable in your home:
- Encourage him to bring a special stuffed animal (a “lovey”) from one home to the other. Having this source of comfort will help him feel safe and secure and provide a sense of consistency across his two homes.
- Keep copies of his favorite books at your house.
- Use bedtime/naptime/mealtime routines to help your stepson understand the flow of daily life in your home.
- Display his artwork and scribbles. Post photos of him with you, your wife, and his mother in your home and in his room.
Create family routines for the three of you to share. (This is also good for his mom to do. Routines make kids feel secure.) Pancakes on Saturday mornings, or pizza on Fridays? Family walks after dinner? Sunday morning playground visits? Whatever your tradition is, stick to it. Traditions help ground young children and make them feel important and loved.
While setting limits help children feel secure, it is also important to have fun together! Those fun moments you share help your son know that this is his house, and he is an important part of your family. So head to the park, go on a nature walk or take a dip in the city pool, visit the library or children’s museum, or just draw or play together. Experiences like these are the bricks that build a family.
Developing Consistent Rules Across Your Child's Two Homes
An important first step toward developing consistent rules for your son is for you to invite your ex-wife to discuss the whole issue of discipline. (You can judge whether it will be helpful to include your new wife or not. Every situation is different.) It will be important for each of you to share the reasoning for your rules, what you’re doing now, and how it seems to be working. If you show respect for your ex-wife’s perspective and share yours without judgment, she is much more likely to consider your position. Developing the ability to talk together about child-rearing also builds a good foundation for the future, since parenting dilemmas only get more complex with time (rules about driving, dating or curfews—sound fun?)
You might also consider seeking the guidance of an objective third party who has expertise in child development. This person can help you and your ex-wife focus your discussion on the needs of your child and help you identify strategies that will benefit him.
Dealing with Different Rules Across Your Son's Two Homes
Even if you and your wife end up agreeing on how to set limits, there are likely always going to be some differences between your son’s two homes. You can help your child adapt when you:
1. Recognize and acknowledge these differences,
2. Be clear and consistent about your “house rules”, and
3. Be patient and loving as your son learns the two sets of rules over time.
For example, you might have an 8 pm bedtime, while he is allowed to stay up later at his mother’s house. Keeping your tone calm and matter-of-fact, you can say something like: I know that you stay up later at Mommy’s house. But in my house bedtime is at 8. Would you like to brush your teeth or wash your face first? Then we will choose a few stories to read. Children learn to adapt to different households and expectations over time.
When your son is older, you can explain your reasoning for why your household has different rules. However, it is important to do this without making judgments about his mother’s parenting. For now, it is enough to say: I know that your mom lets you eat other snacks, but different houses have different rules. Here you can choose a banana or an apple for snack. Then stick to it. Robert Klopfer, director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center in Ridgewood, NJ which specializes in stepfamily issues, likens this situation to a child living in two cultures: “Often it’s not even the U.S. and Canada. It’s like living half the time in the U.S. and half the time in Japan.” That said, Klopfer reassures parents that “children learn over time that in Mom’s house we do it this way and in Dad’s house we do it that way.” Patience and consistency is the key.
However you choose to deal with it, keep in mind that it’s just not possible to change another person’s behavior. You can only control your own actions. By engaging your ex-wife in a respectful way, you maximize the chance that you can work together on these issues. But if that doesn’t work out, just keep focusing on being the best parent you can be. Providing a loving and safe environment, with age-appropriate limits, is the greatest gift you can give your son.
A version of this question first appeared in "Your Child's Behavior," a column written by ZERO TO THREE in American Baby magazine.