Code Red: Parenting

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I’ll say it now, our kids have us whipped. At Two and Five, these guys already know exactly how to work the parental system. Five tiptoes into the living room after I’ve lovingly and firmly tucked him into bed, gravely lays his night fears out like ominous Tarot cards for his father, then smirks at me over dad’s shoulder when he snuggles in on the couch for some extra iPhone time. Two nods earnestly at her father’s cleanup warnings, then cons me into an elaborate tea party while dad’s busy helping Five with homework.

My husband and I are both very involved in parenting our kids, so lines of responsibility aren’t always clear. Taking turns with child rearing tasks like bedtime or homework means that we each bring different expectations, skills, strengths (weaknesses), and preferences to each event. And our kids know it. It’s hard to find the time, and even harder to find the energy, for effective conversations about how we’re going to do things around here, especially when parenting shoves us up against differences in background or values.

What we need is a code. Single words or phrases we parents can use when we don’t want to say it all in front of the kids. Spelling it out doesn’t work when the message is: This kid is getting away with murder here! or You don’t know the whole story yet! Plus, spelling went out the window three years ago when I hinted to my husband, “I think it’s time for N-A-P,” and our oldest interrupted his two-tantrum to insist, “Not tired!” A fellow mom shared in a recent post that she and her husband use “The eagle has landed,” to remind each other to be on best behavior when their son is near.

Those of you who have been at this longer than us have perhaps worked it all out to the point of seamless alliance. What codes do you use to communicate with your partner when you’re out-teamed? Words? Phrases? Non-verbal signals? What do you wish your partner would understand, and how would you reduce it to a word that could invoke humor and solidarity between the two of you, and confusion to the enemy? We’d love to know. We seem to have lost our codebook.

Your stories and advice would be most welcome—share your best code words by leaving a comment below.

3 thoughts on “Code Red: Parenting

  1. This cracked me up! They ALL certainly try to pull the wool over mom and dad’s eyes, don’t they? I have no idea if this would work for you or not, but here are my thoughts, and what has worked for us. Once, my company paid for me to go to one of those god-awful Franklin-Covey seminars. I didn’t learn much (my entire profession resides in “quadrant 3,” which we were told is the place we must avoid at all costs – but I digress). The one thing I DID take away is that in business as in life, we always have to know what THE MOST important things are to us. In order. Otherwise, every decision will be fraught with indecision. I went home and T and I discussed at length. We decided we, as a couple, are priority #1 in our lives. Our girls are priority #2. Our careers are #3. We have specific reasons for the list being in this order; yours may be different. But the point is, once you know what priority #1 is, it’s very easy to make decisions (parenting, business, whatever).

    Okay, so with that ridiculously long preamble out of the way, the way this relates to parenting for us is that the “parental unit” is the center of our family. It’s unshakable. We have each other’s backs. Not to say that we agree all the time, because that sure isn’t the case. But if I say it’s time for bed, T backs me up every time. If he gets on the girls for something I don’t think is a big deal, I back him up every time (and tell him ALL about it later when the kids aren’t around! 😉 But because the family revolves around us, and we are unshakable as the center of the family, there is no dividing and conquering us. Both girls learned VERY early on (by about 2 for C and about 3 for Iz) that the penalty for playing one parent off the other is not something they ever want to experience after the first time. That’s probably the biggest disciplinary action we’ve ever dished out, and for each girl it was memorable and persuasive enough that they didn’t do it again. If I say it, they don’t run to Daddy hoping for a different answer (they may try to make a more persuasive case to me, which is fine).

    So, that’s what we do. Dividing and conquering is flat-out against the rules around here. I think our kids are pretty well-adjusted, but obviously our way of doing things still is what it is because it works for the four of us. Who knows if it would work for other family dynamics, but you asked so I answered! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom! I think readers sometimes assume that my pleas for advice are rhetorical, when in fact they are genuine, and desperate. I really like the idea of getting clear, as a couple, about family priorities. I will initiate this conversation as soon as my husband and I are in the same country again! I did wonder what constituted the “biggest disciplinary action you’ve ever dished out”; nothing we’ve done has ever appeared to make that big of an impression on our children, but perhaps this is because we were not united behind it. Do tell! And thanks again, so much, for your advice and story.

      • Well… generally speaking, I am a fan of making my children’s lives awful until I can be assured that they fully and completely understand my point of view. Obviously every child has a different “currency,” but for our older one, moving bedtime back to 6pm, taking away all tv/video/music/games/playing outside, and assigning gulag-like chores (here, naughty child, is a rag and bucket – go clean this 50 foot section of baseboard… and when you’re done, here’s a toothbrush so you can scrub the grout in the bathroom…). All the while, reminding them why they’ve been stuck with such a tedious day. Like I said, for child #1, I had to do this once, and it made the desired impression. She is more easily persuaded, and less inclined to run roughshod over boundaries, than her sister.

        Child #2 is impressed by grand gestures. For her, I scooped all of her toys into a contractor-sized trash bag as she watched, and threw all of her prized possessions (mainly consisting of barbies, hot wheels, and stuffed animals) into the dumpster. Of course it sent her into a fit of hysterics. I explained that rude children don’t get to play with nice things. All nice things in the world come from the good will of Mommy and Daddy, who don’t HAVE to provide dolls, cars, and games to children who would take advantage of their parents’ good will. As parents, we will provide love, food, and shelter to our children no matter what, but we will not provide the “nice to have” items. Said child spent quite some time playing with sticks and rocks after that, not unlike the children in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Just call me Count Olaf. But bottom line, this child learned her lesson and although she is still quite, um, “high spirited,” all it takes to reel her in is for one of us to say, “You know what happens to children who have smart mouths!” – she straightens right up.

        I feel compelled to point out that had we used this method of discipline with child #1, it would absolutely have crushed her. But knowing child #2 as I do, I knew that simply grounding her for the day would not have worked – wouldn’t have made a blip on her radar. Like I said, she’s a child of grand gestures, with a temperament to match.

        So, different kids require different treatment. But ultimately, as long as they can see the connection of poor behavior leading to dire consequences that they’d rather not experience, it should work!

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