Rethinking the United Front

My friend called to talk with me.  He was very distraught about “the way mother and daughter fight so terribly.”  He explained that his wife Nancy sometimes gets so angry with their 13 year old daughter that he just can’t side with her...:  “she’s just a little kid,” he said to me.  “It’s no lesson: she’s learning to obey her mom in certain situations just so her mom won’t go nuts.  It’s no lesson,” he said in despair.  A psychologist himself, he continued:  “I just see too many girls with eating disorders in my office.  I’m a little worried.  I’m really very upset.”

I tried to console him.  “Volume,” I reassured, “doesn’t cause kids emotional harm....This will pass...  It will all come out in the mix...  As long as Nancy doesn’t hit below the belt when she yells or belittle her, I wouldn’t worry.”  But I wasn’t so sure.  Mother-daughter control battles. . . .I too have seen too many girls react to this thwarted need for control  --to this adolescent, developmental necessity to be different and be heard -- by displacing it symptomatically:  often on and in their bodies; often with food; often with acting-out or dysfunctional behaviors.  So I gently continued:  “help her find her voice, Jack.  Help her find a way to say what she needs to say, in a way that’s comfortable to her and in a voice her mom can hear.”  He agreed, and reflected:  “I do that, actually.  I went in to comfort her later, and suggested that she try to tell her mom how she feels. . . . .”

We hung up with him believing this would all blow over.  He said he trusted Nancy and decided perhaps he was being overly dramatic.  But I got to thinking.  It was the first thing he said that kept ringing in my ears:  I  just couldn’t side with Nancy.  So he stood by, not wanting to disagree or interfere with mom in front of the kids.  There it was again: the united front.  The old, tried and true, unchallenged homage to a single parental voice.  Parenting in unison.  Don’t disagree in front of the children.  Kids can get confused; they might try to “split” the two of you and pit one against the other;  parents should disagree only behind closed doors and not subject the children to their conflicts. . .   And then I also thought about what I’d said:  Help her find her voice, Jack.  And how he said he tried to by later talking it over with Emily and suggesting what she might say the next time.

It all made me uneasy.  If Jack wouldn’t voice his own disagreement to Nancy himself, how could he expect Emily to find the courage to buck the system and assert herself to her mom?  Jack was a sweet man: he liked to keep the peace;  he had a heart of gold and hated conflict.  So he’d usually opt to give in or give up.  Probably in his mind he was doing that “to spare the children” from discomfort as much as anything else.  Or, to not undermine the united front that he believed was right.  Or maybe because Nancy’s anger was too intimidating to him too!  Regardless of the reason, Emily, who adored her dad, was indeed learning how to be like him and make him proud:  give in and swallow your needs.  Don’t challenge mom.  After all, that’s what dad chooses to do when mom voices her strong opinions.  It must be what he believes is right. 

Why does this make me feel so uncomfortable?   It’s not only about the adolescent conflicts & control battles between mothers and daughters (though it’s most dangerous, I think, in that domain).  And it feels like it’s more than just another example of the ‘do what I say and not what I do’ contradiction that’s bothering me.  It feels like more is at stake.  Or perhaps I should say, the issues are more subtle and insidious, particularly for girls.  For me I think it’s about being inauthentic.  And it’s about a misbegotten belief that conflict is bad, mistaking harmony for healthy relationships and thus teaching a platform of compliance and accord that ultimately can promote unhappiness, if not real harm -especially for our daughters.  Sure, we all know the risks of presenting a divided parental front:  that kids can manipulate us if we equivocate;  that they quickly learn to divide and conquer if we give them the opening.    And I certainly agree that parents ought not sabotage one another’s authority in front of the children, or show that they question the other’s capacity to parent wisely.  All good reasons for parents to show each other respect and consider carefully what they say ahead of time.  But why can’t we also allow room for there to be two wise and loving perspectives;  for two viewpoints to be presented that can enlarge the range of possibilities;  for conflicts to arise and be productively resolved in front of the children  --especially as our children enter adolescence and begin to realize that multiple perspectives can and do simultaneously exist?  Perhaps there are benefits in unity for younger children, but I really don’t think adolescents want their parents to simply capitulate or to masquerade as one.  I think they see the hypocrisy and may even feel betrayed by that.

I must confess, I’ve often wondered what the real value of the united “mind-meld”  / “parent-think” lesson actually is for our children when you really stop to think about it.  Is that what a mature relationship should look like?  Is that what our girls - learning everywhere else to silence themselves and be self-sacrificing caretakers of others’ feelings - should aspire to?  Is that really the model of healthy family life:  that adults should always agree and children should obey?    Where and when, then, do we allow our girls the chance to find and express their voice if we don’t make room for it within the family itself?  What better classroom in which to experiment and find their voice?

I want to call Jack back.  I want to tell him that I think it’s perfectly OK to jump right into the fray while it’s happening and say aloud, during the argument:  “I do agree with mom that you shouldn’t have left things ‘til the last minute.  But Nancy, let’s listen to what Emily has to say about it so we can understand what she was thinking and try to help her out.”  Or, to support and coach Emily during (not after) the argument and say, “Go ahead and tell mom what you had in mind.  We’ll listen.”  Or even to say to Nancy,  “I disagree.  I’m a procrastinator too and I know what it’s like.  I think Emily will get it done her own way without our interference, so let’s stop yelling and give her a chance to show us.”  It’s OK, I think, for parents to each have an independent voice.  It’s not only OK but  important for parents to disagree in front of the kids; even to have a conflict and try to resolve it right there.  To show the children how it’s done:  how to respectfully disagree and not be threatened by differences of opinion.  How to begin with two perspectives and arrive at one informed decision.  And how to have this discussion without it escalating or becoming hostile.  In my experience, kids seem to be able to accept when their parents differ without either getting confused or turning it to their own advantage  --especially when they hear honesty spoken without malice.  After all, isn’t it only natural that two adults will have differing viewpoints?

It’s time to rethink this venerable old tradition of the united front.   I know what makes me uneasy about it:  it’s dishonest.  It is indeed a “front”:  it’s an unnatural façade and it’s inauthentic.  And it gives our children a double message: one that can silence our daughters and teach compliance, even as we give lip service to their need to speak up.  We can’t say one thing and then undo it by acting otherwise.  Which lesson will our children believe?  Sure, mom shouldn’t get so angry.  But dad also needs to have a strong voice and not buckle to her louder one.  All voices in a family should be heard.  It seems to me that if, as a new generation of parents we’ve already decided to discard the  “children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard” model of parenting, and instead want to empower our kids to express opinions and make choices, then it’s only reasonable that we also relinquish the unnatural facade of a single parental voice and instead show our kids how to express these opinions in healthy  adult ways.  Where else will they learn that if not from us?   I think this approach translates better to the lessons we truly want our daughters to learn in life: that, like every member of the family or the world, their voice is important and their voice is welcomed.