Divided We Fall – How Kids Play One Parent Off the Other and What to Do About It

You tell your child, “No more cookies” and find him in the kitchen ten minutes later polishing off a sleeve of Oreos. You sneer. And through a chocolatey smirk he spits out, “What? Dad told me it was okay.”

You have been caught in one of the classic parent traps. Kids have learned – when one parent says something you don’t like, go ask the other parent.

This is a huge source of conflict for parents but the problem is that while the parents are fighting, the kid knows they have divided and conquered.

Usually the parents are fighting over the cookies and parenting styles rather than the real issue. The real issue is that they’re not communicating very well and if they want to fight over something that would be a better pick. Another thing they’re not talking about that they might want to is that the kid who plays “parent trap” wants more control over their own life.

This sort of parent trap can happen in the best of families, but it happens less in families where the parents regularly communicate. When you’ve worked out a standard, you already know the answer before they ask.

Take curfew. If you and your spouse have decided that curfew is 11 o’clock, junior is going to get the same answer from both of you. He can try to play divide and conquer but it’s not going to get him very far.

In our home, we have the standard that if one parent tells you something that’s the answer from both parents. If you ask the other parent in an effort to get a different answer, there will be sanctions. Typically when our kids have pulled this on us we don’t feel like driving them to the movies and in order to re-gain our trust they need to help clean the house.

In addition, if this does happen – instead of getting into the same tired argument with your spouse (you know the one – about how he’s so permissive and you’re too hard on the kids), reassure each other that you’re both doing a great job parenting but you need to talk more often. After a child has pulled the trap on you, maybe they can use their allowance to hire a baby sitter so you can go out to dinner and have time to come up with some standards!

From the kids’ perspective, they may be doing this because they want more control over their life and the solution for this is to offer them more choices. While you may not be able to do this for every issue, you may sit down together – both parents and the child – to make set the bigger standards such as curfew or driving for older kids and how many cookies are allowed and how long nap time will be for smaller kids. Give smaller kids two choices – would you rather have two cookies or three cookies (you know the answer to that one). With older kids have a conversation and come to a compromise.

Even something as frustrating as the parent trap can be turned into a great lesson in communication that will help them get along much better in their adult relationships later on.