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posted: 8/24/2014 1:01 AM

When it comes to parenting, a united front works best

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If you're a parent, you've been there.

I'd just taken my seat in the back of the auditorium, so hadn't caught the first act of the family drama being played out in the row in front of me. What I did see was a little girl, perhaps 2 years old, waving around a small booklet, narrowly missing the head of the elderly man in the seat in front of her. Dad was getting increasingly frustrated; finally he reached forward and yanked the papers out of her hand.

Daughter, whether hurt, frightened, angry, or all of the above, immediately began to wail. Bringing the scene to a close, Mom gathered up Daughter, gave Dad a "look," and carried her little girl from the room. Alone on center stage, Dad pretended to busily read the program.

I'll bet there was a third act. It probably went something like this:

Mom: Why do you have to be so rough with her!

Dad: I wasn't rough! She was hitting that man. You certainly weren't doing anything to stop her.

Mom: Well, you didn't need to scare her like that.

Dad: If you'd been paying any attention you'd know I tried to talk to her. Sometimes she just won't listen.

Mom: Sometimes you have to talk to her gently.

Dad: And sometimes that doesn't work. But you always sabotage anything I do.

Mom: You could have picked her up. You could have comforted her.

Dad: How can I? She always goes to you.

The scene probably closes with Mom and Dad sitting in silence, trying hard to avoid each other's eyes.

Not the worst thing that can happen to a family. Not even all that uncommon. Any husband and wife who've tried to raise children together can probably remember a similar scene. But perhaps it is worth thinking about other ways it might be scripted.

My guess is that there already exists in this family a pattern of incidents like the one I observed. We might describe it this way: Daughter misbehaves, Mom tends to ignore, Dad overreacts, Daughter protests, Mom rescues, Mom and Dad wind up frustrated with each other.

The first thing these parents need to do is identify this pattern. The best time to do this is not when they are upset, but when things have calmed down. And both parents need to own up to his or her own contribution to whatever isn't working (we are always both part of the problem).

The next thing to do is explore how we might do things differently. Again, both parents need to be willing to change.

For example, in the scene above, Mom and Dad could agree they would jointly talk to their daughter about appropriate behavior before such an outing (this is called establishing a "united front"). Dad could be responsible for helping his little girl put together a bag of books, Crayons and toys that she could take with her (this lets Dad be the "good guy").

Mom could agree for a while to be the supervising parent and responsible for discipline in such situations (reinforcing her own authority). And Dad might look for opportunities to be the nurturing and comforting parent (helping his daughter to see him in a role other than that of disciplinarian). Finally, they could agree to talk regularly about how such experiments in parenting are going.

There are certainly other ways to come at such situations, but you get the idea: becoming a united front, experimenting with changing roles and behaviors, and lots of feedback.

Sure, there will be some difficult emotions mixed in. We want to be able to openly and constructively talk about feeling frustrated, or hurt, or angry, or disappointed, or whatever we are experiencing in such situations. These emotions need to be expressed; they do not need to dictate what we think and do.

You know, much of parenting is learned as we go along. And there is seldom one "right" way to do things that we can somehow master beforehand.

What we can do, though, is at least learn how to work together as parenting partners. That will make a big difference in the on-the-job training we parents are all constantly involved in.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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