It’s possibly the most over-used gag on family sit-coms spanning the TV airwaves from the days of Leave it to Beaver till our own 8 Simple Rules: a parent tries to lay down a message of authority to a errant child, and the other parent uses the opportunity to joke about the parent’s own childishness. The reason we laugh at this joke over and over is that it reflects the tension we often feel in our own family situations. But don’t laugh to hard, because the issue reflected by the joke can be one of the most serious threats to successful parenting.
“For a long time, I didn’t know how to put it into words,” Megan recounts of her co-parenting struggle, “My husband is so logical, all the time. When I’d make a decision about one of our kids, he’d always give me a ‘look’ and have some comment about not seeing the bigger picture. I realized after awhile that what he was causing my kids to see me as less intelligent and less capable of making good decisions. He still has a hard time admitting that it was having a bad effect on our family.”
Family research strongly supports Megan’s view that these kinds of communication messages have a negative impact on the entire family system. Jouriles and Murphy’s (1991) study of 87 families noted a connection between acting-out behavior in boys and parental disagreement. Other researchers have found similar results. The issue is not that parents have disagreements about child-rearing, it is how those disagreements are expressed in front of the children.