Any couple raising children is bound to have disagreements about the right way to manage their kids' behaviors and habits. But there are some issues that are so loaded they threaten to divide parenting partners. Parents took an informal poll to see which conflicts topped couples' lists, and three sources of frustration came up again and again. The hot buttons? Television, consequences, and food. We asked three families to bare the details of their battles and brought in expert help to guide them from stalemate to success.
"We disagree about consequences."
Melissa and Nick Brindisi
Parents of Owen, 8; Claudia, 6; and Benjamin, 4
"My husband, Nick, and I struggle with how to discipline our older son, Owen. He's a sweet kid who's thoughtful and likes to help. But he's so impulsive, I can't control him. He's always yelling or aggravating his brother and sister. For example, Owen will poke them or taunt them by chanting their names over and over, long after they and I have told him to stop. I've taken him to multiple counselors who have implemented reward systems, but the rewards, including a bucket of toy prizes I'd purchased, quickly lose their appeal, and then we're back to square one. Nick's idea of dealing with Owen was to create a strike system. If Owen doesn't get three strikes for bad behavior by the end of the day -- he doesn't, say, hit his sister, or he listens when I tell him to stop annoying his brother -- he can have extra time in the evening doing something he enjoys, like watching a favorite TV show with Nick. But if he gets three strikes, he's sent to his room early.
With my husband often on call for his hospital job, I'm the one who's at home doling out the majority of the discipline. Owen gets 'strikes' constantly, so he almost never gets rewarded. I don't see how this is working, and it's breaking my heart because I feel like we're saying, 'You're a giant failure.' I appreciate Nick's input -- he really does want to help -- but I'm tired of this endless punishment cycle!"
"Melissa and I don't always communicate with each other about the kids, so when I am home, Owen takes advantage of that. For example, he'll come down the stairs and say 'Dad, can I turn on the TV?' I'll ask him, 'Don't you have homework?' He'll respond, 'Well, Mom said it's okay.' I'll check with Melissa and she'll say, 'I didn't say that,' and it snowballs from there and he ends up with a strike. Time-outs had never worked with Owen and I thought things were improving with the new strike system in place, but Melissa insists they're not. I think we just need to give it more time, and I don't want to give up the three-strikes system until we have something that will work."
William Doherty, Ph.D., professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota
Dr. Doherty Says
"Before they can help their child, Melissa and Nick need to see eye to eye. When it comes to assessing what's going on at home, Nick should trust Melissa's experience, because she's there more. Every time he suggests it's getting better, even though she disagrees, he undermines her experience. The rhetoric ratchets up from there. When Melissa's put in a position of having to be negative for the sake of Nick's disciplinary approach, it backfires and the cycle continues. Why? Because the basis of what they say to their son should be positive and the nature of Nick's strike system is primarily negative. As it is, Owen's day-end reward is too far from his everyday reality, and he's being set up to fail. Rather than save the reward for the end of the day, the 'reward' should be praise given regularly for small changes -- good things that have been caught in action, such as Owen's spontaneously helping a sibling. Nick and Melissa need to create experiences and positive communication with Owen, where he can feel successful so that he's not always in failure mode."
One night after the kids were in bed, Melissa and Nick sat down together to come up with a new, more positive discipline strategy, one they could both agree on. Says Melissa: "It's true that Owen wasn't motivated by rewards that were to come later in the day. Nick and I decided to make an effort to start praising Owen's good deeds throughout the day, such as, 'Wow, you're such a great brother, helping Benjamin set up that toy!' He really responded to positive attention -- much more so than he did to little toy prizes, which was another tactic I'd tried, without success -- and he started doing more good things like that. Praise is what brings out the best in him." Owen's behavior is still a challenge, but Melissa notes, "He's much better, and we feel he's even less impulsive now."
TV Time in the Home
"We can't agree on TV time."
Debra and Bryan Baca
Parents of Maggie, 4, and Carter, 2
"When I was growing up, my family didn't own a TV. I felt deprived, but today I think I'm a better person for it. Now that I'm a mom, I see a huge difference between how my husband, Bryan, and I view TV. Bryan and Maggie wake up earlier than Carter and I do, and Bryan puts her in front of the TV so he can read the news on his iPad, have breakfast, shower, and get dressed for work without being bothered. The TV stays on until I get up a couple of hours later and take over for the day, and when I turn it off the whining begins; Maggie always wants 'just one more' show. While I let my kids occasionally watch TV when they're sick, my ideal would be no TV, because I don't believe it's good for their development. It upsets me that our daughter identified with Elmo and her other TV 'friends' before she was 2."
"Every morning I watch Maggie from when she gets up, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until I leave for work at 7:30. The TV keeps her occupied so she won't wake up Debra and Carter, but unfortunately, Maggie now expects it every morning and whines to Debra for more. I'd like to limit Maggie's TV time too, but I can't seem to give up our morning routine."
Chip Donohue, Ph.D., director of the Erikson Institute's Technology in Early Childhood Center in Chicago
Dr. Donohue Says
"Debra and Bryan are raising valid concerns about healthy use of media and the impact of screen viewing on kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children over 2 watch no more than two hours of screen time a day (even quality programming). The first goal is to be aware of how much screen time Maggie has and manage it carefully. The second is to keep media experiences interactive: Bryan can ask Maggie questions about what she's watching. Debra and Bryan could also find other activities to engage Maggie, like drawing or playing with toys."
Finding something other than television to keep Maggie occupied was the most helpful piece of advice, agree Debra and Bryan. When Maggie gets up, Bryan now gives her a "project box" with paper, crayons, safety scissors, glue sticks, cotton balls, and pipe cleaners, which keeps her happy at the kitchen table while Bryan gets ready for work. "Now she hardly ever asks to watch TV in the morning, and she's even sleeping in later," says Debra. TV is a special treat now -- Maggie watches a show one night a week while Debra attends a yoga class and Bryan puts Carter to bed. Maggie also gets TV a few times a week when she goes to child care at Debra's gym. Says Debra: "I can't keep her from TV altogether, but Bryan and I are both more comfortable with the amount she's watching."
"We fight about food."
Gina and Seiji Katsurayama
Parents of Isabella, 3
"I try to give Isabella vegetables and other wholesome things, and she rejects everything healthy! I do my best to keep junk food away from her so that she'll be hungry for 'real' food, but my husband, Seiji, gives in. I don't want her to eat empty calories; I've fought being overweight and I don't want Isabella to share that struggle. In the morning Isabella drinks formula (she doesn't like milk) with a waffle and strawberries or a banana. At day care she eats a packed lunch such as pasta, pizza, bacon, chicken nuggets, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich. If Isabella doesn't eat what we serve, Seiji will make her a waffle for dinner. I don't want her to think she has the option to turn down my healthy meals, but Seiji says she has to have the good things in life! The pediatrician recommended a multivitamin, but she struggles with it and we give her candy to take it. It kills me that we feed her junk."
"Growing up, I was forced to eat whatever was put in front of me. One time my mom made me eat cream of broccoli soup, and it made me gag. When I see Isabella struggle with food, I understand. If she refuses what I offer her, I replace the offending food with something she likes.I don't push vegetables on her; she doesn't like them. We've tried to steam or sauté broccoli with different sauces, but she refuses it. When I pick her up from day care, we have a snack: popcorn, chocolates, or yogurt, or I'll give her a frozen mango fruit puree. I have a sweet tooth, so if she eats what I give her I'll share a treat with her. We definitely eat junk food between meals. We also use candy as a counting tool. We'll lay little chocolates on the table and ask, 'How many will we eat today?' I try to make it fun for her!"
Parents advisor Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Feed Your Family Right
"Seiji's right that parents should never force a child to eat. Doing so can make her less likely to try and enjoy new foods. It's perfectly normal for a 3-year-old to be finicky and fussy when it comes to food. When Isabella has a growth spurt, she will be hungrier and perhaps try new foods. The key is to repeatedly offer whole foods prepared in an attractive, appealing way; Gina and Seiji can serve them on colorful plates to make eating more fun. Another great way to help Isabella get excited about eating more healthfully is to get her involved by giving age-appropriate chores: picking out produce at the store, mashing a banana, and setting the table (even if it's just placing the napkins). It's critical for Gina and Seiji to eat the foods they want to see Isabella eat. At meals she should not have separate 'kid food' but eat what her parents are eating, in a form that's safe for her age, like cut-up meats and soft-cooked vegetables. Isabella should definitely be off formula, which is specifically designed for infants' nutritional needs; a cute straw cup can make milk more appealing, though it may take several tries before she drinks it. Meanwhile, Isabella can eat a variety of calcium-rich foods like small servings of cheese and calcium-fortified orange juice (a half cup per day) and continue to have low-fat or nonfat yogurt -- at least once a day would be a good goal. Seiji and Gina could also pack healthier lunches: fruit, whole-grain crackers, and lean protein foods like chicken or turkey breast, in small amounts."
After trying Zied's ideas, Gina and Seiji saw success almost immediately. Isabella's tried new fruits -- she especially liked honeydew melon -- and they've reintroduced low-fat milk in a princess straw cup; she takes a few sips at a time. Seiji has put sugary treats out of sight and Isabella's favoring better snacks, like Greek yogurt. Gina's creating healthier meals for the whole family to enjoy, and Isabella's given the thumbs-up to fish, miso soup with tofu, and oven-baked chicken. "Our final frontier is veggies," says Gina, "but we're encouraged that she'll warm to them, especially as I get her more involved in the shopping."
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.