When two parents are raising a child, and a disciplinary dilemma arises, one parent may need to call a “time-out” to consult the other in private.

What makes it so difficult to wait to lay down the law until a spouse can share the decision? Both parents feel passionately about their child. The passion sets up competition between them that I call “gatekeeping.”

As they compete for the child’s heart, they recognize that the parent who gives in will be rewarded with intimacy — in the short run.

But children need adults to agree on the rules and the consequences for breaking them. Sometimes one parent may respond to a child’s behavior by setting a limit, only to find later that the other parent disagrees. It is almost always best to support the initial response and to plan to talk later about how to handle the situation in future.

When one parent undermines the other, the child feels confused, even guilty, and unsure that parental discipline can protect her from her own impulses. At times, patents may need to sacrifice fine points of their views on discipline for the sake of working more closelyr.

In disciplining a child, parents may be surprised to find themselves confronting their own pasts. They face the challenge of reconciling their childhood experiences and their current ideas about discipline.

Children sense disagreements and test them. A child who knows that one parent will side with her against the other will continue to misbehave. Often the consequence that a parent chooses for misbehavior is less important than that both parents back the choice.

One parent is likely to become the disciplinarian. But if that role isn’t shared, children may see one parent as “good” and the other as “bad.” Children need to know they can count on both parents for limits. When discipline is not shared, parents may set up expectations that the children then carry into their adult relationships.

Discipline is even more complicated as children progress through the stage of favoring one parent while rebuffing the other. The 4-year-old boy who, for the moment, is entranced with his mother will want nothing to do with his father. How much harder it is for this child to hear his father tell him: “I’m going to have to take away that toy since you haven’t put it away” — all the more motivation to disobey!

His mother may try to “protect” him from his father’s protestss. “Give him another chance. He’s just a little boy.” Then the child may see the father’s discipline as unjustified. The child needs both parents to let him know when discipline is appropriate.


  1. Stop the action — use a time-out or instruct the child to go to her room.

  2. Take a deep breath.

  3. Consult your spouse and coordinate your response.

  4. Set up consequences for the child that relate closely to the misbehavior and that aim at your larger goals such as learning to control impulses, respecting the feelings of others and distinguishing right from wrong.

  5. Let the child know you need to discuss her behavior with her when she’s calmed down.


  Chores, allowance, bedtime and bedtime ritual, between-meal snacks, hitting and fighting, television (time and programming).


Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

[email protected]

— New York Times Syndicate


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