Marital harmony in front of children?

I wanted to get some perspective about this. I know people will say things like, parents shouldn’t disagree in front of children about discipline, or shouldn’t let the child appeal one parent’s decision to the other. And I do get the motivation behind that.

At the same time I remember the actual practice being endlessly frustrating. I knew as a kid that often I was in trouble because mom was in a mood, or couldn’t consider that she might forget or not be clear, or something. And I knew my father knew that, yet nothing ever happened from it, and I wasn’t allowed to complain to him - or if I did it would be brushed off, he wouldn’t even consider asking my mother about it.

What was right here? What should happen?

Finding it frustrating that your parents were so united that they’d rather let you chew a petty injustice rather than confront each other on your behalf is not the worst thing in the world. You had the security of knowing they were united, that not even you could come between them. Besides, it did not hurt you to learn to live with these things, that you weren’t going to have the opportunity to right every offense committed against you. That has undoubtedly served you in its own way, too.

This is a strange way of putting it, at least to my mind. Such injustices are not petty to a child. All it taught me was that I was worthless - no matter what I did I would perpetually be a terrible, rebellious child, because I was constantly in trouble and couldn’t do anything to change that. And it didn’t matter what I’d tried or meant to do, my mother was the authority and if she said I was bad, then I was bad and that was the end of it.

Honestly? I mostly remember it leaving me feeling helpless and worthless. I didn’t believe as a kid that my parents loved me, and I feel like that was one of the main contributors. It seemed at the time that it was more important to not have conflict than to actually care about me.

After all, I was in trouble all the time, and it didn’t matter to anyone, even people who could see that I was getting punished for things that weren’t my fault.

Then it doesn’t sound like “marital harmony” was the root of your problem. Parents who make a concerted effort to stand as a solid front can (and should) also make their children feel loved.

I remember having these feelings as a child too. My parents too had a united front and it often seemed like I was getting into trouble unjustly, and there was no going to my father and telling him that my mom was wrong. Looking back though, I can see that one of my friends, who never seemed to get in trouble and could do practically anything she wanted to do, actually had parents who barely tolerated one another, and didn’t pay much attention to her. I’m sure that there were times that I was unjustly in trouble, but I can remember the times I did something I wasn’t supposed to do and no one was the wiser. I don’t think I’d want to stack the unjust times up against the times I deserved it. The former would certainly be fewer than the latter. Becoming a mother myself helped me to see how welcome it was to have a husband who backed me up so I didn’t have to be the bad cop all the time.

I think that generally speaking, the spouses should back one another up in these things. However, there are exceptions. I grew up in a household with a father who had a terrible temper. He made my brother the scapegoat for his anger. So my brother would be blamed for things that he may not have done and because of my father’s extreme anger, something really not worth bothering about, like a candy wrapper found in the chair, was something that became a major issue and worthy of punishment. So, there are times when a spouse should intervene, especially when things become abusive.

Honestly, I still feel like my mother unfairly accuses me. The more distance I get the more I see that there were things wrong that I didn’t see at the time - my mother wasn’t in control of her temper and I suffered for it. It created a home that was very arbitrary for me; I felt like I didn’t know the rules and that often I had no idea how to do what was expected of me.

And that’s sort of what gets me. I wasn’t abused, really, but it was certainly an environment where the house rules seemed to change on a whim, and where innocent mistakes were punished without any real training on how to avoid them. I know I’ve had to do a lot of work as an adult, because my parents approach was by and large to spank me until I figured out what I was supposed to be doing, and a lot of times that didn’t develop healthy habits. (Emotional control really suffered from this one - I was always in trouble for crying but I never really figured out any nondestructive ways of handling emotions. I just turned to self-destructive behaviors I wouldn’t get caught at.) And there was just no way out as a kid.

I always hear about how spouses should back each other up, but…I don’t know, something just feels off to me, and I can’t explain what exactly.

My parents argued A LOT when I was a kid about other stuff, but they were always 99.9% of the time agreed about discipline. On the other hand, I was not “always in trouble,” their rules were fair, and their expectations were usually reasonable.

So, it wasn’t an issue.

I feel like every family is going to be unique in this respect.

Actually, your mom does sound abusive.

If you ask me, I think parents need to set a cap on when they should stop acting god-like to their own children and I’d dare say the Church should take initiative on teaching parents to humanize themselves instead of establishing their roles as unquestionable authorities.

I’m sure in there’s something to that effect in the actual Catechism but really, much is lost in layman translation. :shrug: After hitting 22, my relationship with my parents dramatically improved because they allowed me to see them as less than perfect.

I still hate that word, to be honest. Even though I recognize my mother did a lot of things that are inappropriate, it’s just such a final term, like it puts a parent firmly on the bad mommy side of the good mommy/bad mommy divide. I certainly don’t feel like my mother ever intended to hurt me - I think by and large she thought she was doing what was best for me.

It is not that your dad should not have gone to bat for you. It is that he should not go to bat for you in front of you, if that can be avoided. That parents should not have disputes or correct each other in front of others DOES NOT mean they should never have disputes, complain, or correct each other. It means they ought to do it in private.

In the ideal world, your dad talks to your mother and your mother goes to you herself and apologizes. He might also talk to her and warn her that if she does not treat you fairly, he’s going to be forced to step in.

If that does not work, he goes to you, lets you talk about how you feel about it, refrains from correcting her for you, but helps you to consider how to handle the situation yourself. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether you are right or your mom was right. What matters is that your dad coaches you about how to deal with conflicts and injustices without a “rescuer” instead of a coach. What he does not do is to get you used to the idea the disputes ought to be handled via “triangulation,” where a third person acts as a go-between the two people actually having a conflict.

If the issue is a petty thing and your other parent is having a mood, he can coach you that sometimes we need to overlook the faults of others. Perhaps some time your parents will do the same for you, and later on he will explain that they looked past your bad day–not because you were entitled to it, but in the interest of the common good and the objective of not letting one person have the power to cause a lot of drama single-handedly.

In the worst case, a parent has a duty to separate, even with the bond remaining, in order to protect a child from abuse. Emotional abuse counts. A parent might be right to let their children learn to navigate the bumps and scratches of life without trying to step in and fix things for them every time, but they can’t stand by and watch their child be abused. That would be as bad as forcing a child to watch them be abused.

She may have convinced herself of that.

Actually, I’ve heard that a lot from abusive parents - they justify what they do all the time as being for their kid’s own good, or their kid just was so bad or so exasperating they deserved what they got.

We always try to justify our sins to ourselves, no matter how minor or major they are.

To answer your thread’s general question, I think it’s fine for parents to show healthy disagreement in front of their children. I do think, however, they need to be on the same page about discipline and present a united front. That discipline also needs to be reasonable. In some cases it sounds like it wasn’t for you, and I know in my case “united front on discipline” meant “Yeah, daddy smacked you around and shamed you and I refuse to intervene even though I should have.” That’s definitely not healthy.

How about, “your mom did a lot of abusive stuff.”

A parent can have good points and yet commit acts that are abusive just as surely as a parent can be a good provider and yet come home drunk. Likewise, a parent might have many good points and be abusive just as surely as the same parent might have good points and be an alcoholic. There have been parents who have done awful things to their children with the best of intentions, all the way up to murder. Good intentions don’t redeem an bad end. Honest good intentions and lack of a way to know better can remove culpability, but that doesn’t make the outcome good instead of bad.

The thing is, if your dad could see your mom was being truly abusive, rather than just difficult, then he needed to protect you, even if your mom didn’t understand why he felt a need to do that.

That’s very good.

I suspect that the parents who do the god-like thing are very unlikely to be dissuaded by having an underlined Catechism waved at them.

I am pretty firm with my kids when it comes to matters of duty (homework, school attendance, hygiene, etc.), but my big kids (12 and 9) have been pointing my foibles out to me for some time. I expect it’s good for me. And, on the bright side, I hope this means that I won’t suddenly fall from grace.

Pretending to be a god is a dangerous activity. (See, for example, Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.”)

Remember, too, that sometimes parents do not avoid fighting in front of kids for the sake of the kids or to keep up a good front. Sometimes they do it because they don’t like conflict and especially aren’t willing to hazard the ire of someone who is powerful on behalf of someone who is weak. They don’t want to suffer the punishment that their spouse deals out when they cross them. That isn’t necessarily prudence. That can be just cowardice, and parents can be cowardly at the expense of their child, too. Sometimes (to be less harsh) it can also be a version of learned helplessness. They have never figured out how to confront their spouse without making things even worse, so they quit trying to do it.

Yes, OP, parents should maintain a united front when it comes to disciplining their children.

This means that parents should discuss at length, before they ever have children, and indeed, before they ever GET MARRIED, what their “philosophy of childrearing” will be.

They need to decide where on the spectrum of “Totally Permissive” and “Totally Authoritative” they will be. Obviously, the best outcome for children is that parents decide on a course somewhere in the middle. Whether they lean towards permissiveness or authoritative will depend on many things–what their jobs are, what kind of city/town/wilderness they live in, etc.

There are times when it is good to be a little permissive; e.g., when a beloved relative comes to visit, I think it’s good to allow the children to stay up just a little later so that they can spend more time with that relative. OTOH, if a child doesn’t function well the next day after a later bedtime, then the parents need to exert their authority and make it clear to the child that bedtime will be at the same time as usual.

Dr. James Dobson has an interesting philosophy–he said that as often as possible, parents should say “Yes,” because this is the way God is. He doesn’t say “No,” He says, “Yes, right now,” or “Yes, in a little while.”

Anyway, OP, the point is, the parents should AGREE in ADVANCE on their child-rearing strategies, and then stick to their guns TOGETHER and operate as a parenting TEAM (unless they realize that their choices were not made wisely, or do not fit their child–then they should change their strategy TOGETHER).

What you grew up with is one of the two extremes. You’re seeing the extreme where the parents ignore all common sense and mercy and justice, and agree with each other and stick to their guns even if those guns are going off and hurting/killing people.

Not good, as you know.

But there is another extreme–that is the extreme where parents do NOT agree on childrearing philosophies and strategies, and constantly undermine each other. Children are horribly damaged when this is their home situation. The children learn how to manipulate their parents, and then they carry that over to other social settings and learn to manipulate friends, acquaintances, work associates, etc. It’s pretty grim.

And of course, when parents disagree and undermine each other’s discipline, the child is uncertain of what is right and wrong, and that is very frightening for the child and for all of society.

So, OP, the idea is that parents SHOULD agree, but they need to find a balance. They should not be so rigid in their agreement that they harm their children in the process, but they should not be so wishy-washy that they don’t give the child clear guidance and end up teaching the child the Evil Art of Manipulation.

I hope this makes sense to you and others.

Everything would be so much better if courting couples would talk with more mature couples that they admire, and discuss various child-rearing strategies with the goal of coming to an agreement long before they ever have children. Of course, yes, sometimes this all needs to go out the window depending on the child that you are given! But more often than not, if a couple has their Game Plan ready to go, they will be in much better shape than the silly people who decide to parent “by instinct.” I think a lot of very mixed-up children are walking around totally confused and disillusioned by life because their parents didn’t love them enough to plan for their arrival and tenure.

Oh, BTW, OP, I agree with you that parents should be “human” in front of their children.

When parents make mistakes in their discipline and treat a child too harshly, or impose a punishment on the wrong child, or whatever, YES, that parent should come to their child and apologize and ask for forgiveness.

That’s one of the best lessons that children can learn–how to admit wrong-doing and ask for forgiveness.

BUT…parents should never, ever EVER be “just friends” with their children. It is from parents that a child learns the concept of “authority.” Parents must somehow teach a child that the child must respect and obey those who are in authority.

A child who does not learn that concept very early, from toddlerhood, will be a terror to the family, to their school, and to society. A child MUST learn that the teacher, the policeman, Grandma and Grandpa and most adults, the coach, the pastor, the President, and most importantly, GOD–must all be respected and obeyed.

I think that nowadays, parents are almost afraid to teach this vitally-important concept to their children because they’ve seen so much abuse of authority. In your case, you saw it in your parents who were abusive towards you. It seems that every time we turn on the news, we hear another story of an abusive pastor, coach, or teacher, or even policeman. And many of us have a difficult time with our current President and we really don’t feel much respect for him.

BUT…just because there are monsters doesn’t mean we can turn up our noses at authority, and children need to know this, and they need to see their parents respecting and obeying authorities. Even if we disagree with the President or some other authority, we should still respect their position and respect them as fellow human beings, and not trash talk them or totally disregard any of their reasonable commands.

It’s a tough task–parents have to train children to respect and obey authority, and also train their children not to obey a command to commit sin, or to participate in sin, or in any unwise or hurtful activity. E.g., if a coach is demanding that their young athletes give up water for two days before their competition, that is a dangerous action and the child MUST disobey.

It’s tough. The idea is that the child should feel comfortable with their parents so that they are able to come to Mom and Dad and ask them if it’s OK to disobey.

We worked hard on this with our children, and I used stories of the Nazi Holocaust to help them understand. I read them stories of people who had disobeyed the laws of the land and had chosen to help the Jews rather than persecute them.

One evening, I decided to let my girls try out the AWANA club at the church where I grew up (Baptist). I was hoping they would enjoy it and have fun.

I don’t know if they still do this in their meetings, but back then, they opened AWANA club with a pledge to the flag, followed by a pledge to the AWANA flag. The pledge involved holding up the hand in a straight-arm salute.

I was incredibly proud of my daughter, who was about 5 years old at the time, because after the meeting, she told me that she had not raised her arm or said that pledge. She said that it felt like she was worshipping a flag instead of God, and she felt uncomfortable because the “salute” looked just like the Nazi salute to Hitler.

So even young children can learn to think for themselves when parents spend time with them and tell them meaningful stories, give them examples, and work with them to help them think things through.

Again, all of this is so much easier when parents agree with each other and back each other up in a balanced, fair way, and work together to train up their children in the ways they should go.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit