Many parenting experts cite a verse from our weekly parasha-portion in order to encourage parents to keep a ' united front' against their' ben sorer u'moreh' - rebellious and challenging child. The verses Devarim 21:18-21 speak of parents who report their son to the elders of the city - that despite attempts to discipline him, he does not listen to the voice of his father or mother. The parents claim that their parenting is not the problem because they do not convey contradicting and mix messages to the kid, but it is the kid who is at fault as he does not listen to their ' singular' voice.
Everyone agrees that parental and marital harmony is crucial for raising kids in a peaceful, loving and cooperative environment. And children do better when there is some degree of consistency and predictability. But the overriding question is what are we being consistent about and whether we can overdo or misapply the consistency by following the widespread parenting advice of ' keeping a united front'.
A problem with the advice of having an united front against your challenging child is that it describes the 'parent-child ' dynamic a 'war' against the kid where parents are ' doing to ' the child , imposing parental will using power and authority. In a war, you may win the battle, but lose the war and your child. This advice blinds and deafens parents to asking important questions – what kind of relationship do I have with my child and/or is my child's lagging skills causing his challenging behaviors. A parent cannot report a rebellious or wayward son if they are' blind ', as they are also blind to the needs of their kid. I often hear how a kid runs away from home, at best to his grandparents, after having an argument with one of his parents. Instead of maintaining the ' united front ' and backing up the father for eg , the mother who has not been involved emotively in the argument and confrontation can step in as a third party and try to reconcile the parties by using Collaborative problem solving techniques. The concerns of the father and the child are put on the table and attempts are made to find mutually satisfying solutions or at least an attempt to try and compensate the child. When reasons are given for decisions and the concerns of kids are taken into account, kids are more likely to trust parents' decisions even when they are not so happy about them. A United front can cause even more damage. So often with a challenging kid or even with a typical kid ,a spouse and it is usually the father is more demanding, strict , critical and very confrontational with a child. The kid becomes more reactive, defiant, oppositional, explosive or implosive. The wife who disagrees with this approach is given the advice to maintain the united front and back the husband. This is the perfect 'recipe' for continued abuse and trauma. Constant confrontation, criticism and put downs is abuse and traumatic even if it is low level. Kids will either leave the home or be kicked out, drop religious practices and their emotional connection with their parents. Instead the other spouse or mother should see her role as primarily protecting her child and not sticking with her husband. The wife can show the husband that they are 'losing' and ' hurting ' their child and that the husband's concerns can be addressed by ' working with the child 'and solving problems in a collaborative way. And if he continues, she should leave the home with the kids if he is not willing to follow her lead, instead of kicking out the kid.
The verse talks about the kid not listening to the parents' voice', not just the words. This implies that the unified message must be honest and authentic. Although parents may easily share the same values, beliefs and dreams for their children, being human with different personalities they may have different perspective of the abilities of their children and interventions appropriate to the child. When parents feel compelled to take the same position on every issue in front of kids, they are being dishonest with themselves and certainly not authentic. Kids see through this, so it is better for kids to see that adults sometimes disagree and yet resolve their disagreements in a respectful way or even in some cases learn to tolerate differences. Instead of a ' unified front' parents should aim for a' unified family', where the kids participate with parents to form a family mission statement and problems are solved in a collaborative way taking into account the concerns of all. When parents ' concerns are addressed, the solutions not only address the kids concerns but also set limits. In this way parents can still be honest to themselves and authentic and work together for the unity of the family and not just keep a united front against their children.