Discipline After Divorce

Mom's House, Dad's House

The key to effective discipline is to be consistent, so your kids will know you mean business and not be confused. It's understandably difficult, therefore, for them to play by different rules in different homes. And it can be tough for you to be firm if you think they're having more fun -- or getting away with more -- when they're not with you.

Margaret Welch, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, found this out firsthand when she got divorced last year. She shares custody of her three young children with her ex-husband and often finds herself playing the bad-cop role. She says no to certain videos, for example, that the kids' dad lets them watch. "Their father gives in to them on everything," she sighs. "But I'm determined not to let my kids use the divorce as a crutch for bad behavior or to let them manipulate me into changing my mind about which rules I want them to follow in my house."

Of course, even married parents disagree about discipline sometimes, leading kids to pit one parent against the other in order to get what they want. But conflicting parenting styles can pose even more complex dilemmas for a single parent, because there's never anyone to back you up. There's also no one to give you feedback about whether you're overreacting or being fair, says Lynda Hunter-Bjorklund, Ed.D., author of Parenting on Your Own (HarperCollins, 1997). To make matters worse, your former spouse may deliberately break your discipline rules because he's angry or wants to get even.

Ideally, you should discuss important discipline issues with your ex so the same standards will apply in both homes. But if the two of you aren't in sync, you need to focus on discipline in terms of your own long-range parenting goals, Erwin advises. For instance, although it may make your kids happy to play video games all weekend instead of pitching in and cleaning the house, "permitting that only encourages them to think that love means giving someone everything he wants," she explains. Having established rules -- even if they're not popular -- makes kids feel more secure.

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