Military children are no strangers to division. Between deployments, field exercises and long hours, children know what it’s like to see their parents divided.
Though children can cope with divisions when it comes to the needs of the military, there is no reason a child should know what it’s like to have parents divided on discipline, education and rewards programs. Children are smart– they can figure out how to play one parent against the other, so it is a parent’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Hilary Rich and Helaina Laks Kravitz, M.D. coauthored The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Marriage. The book goes beyond rules for keeping a marriage healthy and dives into parenting your child as a couple, a united front. Though miles may come between military couples more often than one would like, that doesn’t mean there has to be a canyon between two parents when it comes to taking care of children. “The absolute best thing for a child is to see that his or her parents are a strong unit and are in agreement, even about a punishment. Of course, all kids will try to break parents down. They are experts at sniffing out differences and trying to push two parents apart,” the authors explained. “If one of you starts to carry through a punishment, and the other one tells them that it’s not necessary, you will have undermined your authority. Your children will be the ultimate losers because it will not be clear what is expected of them.”
The same holds true when your spouse is deployed or at work for the day. If you bend the rules you’ve both agreed upon behind his or her back, then you are undermining the other’s authority.
Kids may not realize it, but they like and need discipline. Setting boundaries lets a child know they’re loved; it lets them know his or her parents have a desire to protect him or her. Rich and Kravitz write, “Even though they might feel good that they were not punished at the time, they will be generally confused about how they should behave. Further, you will have eroded trust in your marriage. Therefore, you must always stand by your spouse at the time, even if you disagree strongly. Afterward, in private, you can discuss how you might have handled the situation differently.”
Military children long for constants in their lives. Though they adapt well to change, it is important to give them as much stability at you can, even if it comes in the form of discipline. If the rule is “no eating on the couch,” then the rule should always be “no eating on the couch,” even when one parent is gone.
Blogger Katie Dillon agrees. She is the owner of lajollamom.com and admits she, too, struggles with disciplining her 7-year-old daughter. “Finding a strategy that sticks is tough. Time-out still works for us, but I sense my daughter will grow out of it shortly,” Dillon said. “We, like most parents, struggle with discipline.”
Dillon said one of the most important aspects of discipline is that both parents have to agree to a strategy and stick to it. “Kids are smart. If one parent deviates, which is quite easy to do, kids will learn there is leeway and the strategy won’t be as effective. Plus, what works for one kid may not for another, so there may be trial and error involved along with a great deal of patience on the part of parents.” Kids will try, try and try again. They’ll push parents to the limit to see how much they can get away with, but all experts seem to agree this is a phase they’ll outgrow. “The quickest way for a child to outgrow this phase is for his or her parents to stand strong,” Rich and Laks Kravitz wrote. “When a child learns it’s possible to get what he or she wants by playing one parent against the other, the child is more likely to continue doing it.” To encourage repeated good behavior, parents can try rewarding that good behavior and being enthusiastic about making correct choices. It is important for both parents to compliment the child, even if one is far from home.
“It is important to enthusiastically accentuate the positive when kids do something right so that negative actions aren’t always in the spotlight,” Dillon said.
So, how can a parent far from home compliment great behavior if he or she doesn’t see it? Through technology, of course. If the child does something worth celebrating, take a video of his or her action and send it in an email to the deployed parent. For example, maybe your 3-year-old is cleaning up his or her toys after an afternoon of playing. Cheer the child on, catch it on video and sent it to your partner. The next time the child gets a chance to skype with his or her deployed parent, they parent can praise the child for being so well behaved while he or she is away.
Rewards charts are also excellent ways to keep the child on the right track, and a great way to have something tangible to show the deployed parent. If mom is away on a trip for several weeks, the child can keep track of his or her positive choices and actions with stickers. When mom returns from the field, he or she can relive the achievements with her and earn praise from her as well. Likewise, if a child’s father is deployed for months on end, you could help your son or daughter journal about their behavior, then share it with the parent during phone conversations and skype sessions. For example, ask your son or daughter to record one poor choice and one positive choice each day. Hopefully, before too long it will become more difficult for the child to think of poor choices they’ve made because they’re behaving so well. If a child has to write about negative choices and their consequences, he or she is really forced to think about that action.
The bottom line is this: divided never equals conquered when it comes to distance due to deployments, but divided will equal conquered when it comes to parenting styles and discipline. It is important to maintain a united front at all times when parenting your children and setting examples for them. “If both parents stand firm on a particular issue, there is no leeway,” Dillon said. “Plus, it can help avoid the child siding with one parent over the other which can lead to difficulties and further conflict, especially when parents are separated. Consistency is terribly important when it comes to discipline and the techniques must be age-appropriate.”
Your child’s pediatrician can also play a key role in your parenting techniques; feel free to discuss age-appropriate punishments, expectations and rewards programs with your child’s doctor whenever you have concerns.