McNerney: The Parenting Seesaw

By Neil McNerney

If you think about it, the seesaw is one of the only pieces of playground equipment that requires a partner. I have fond memories of being at the playground and looking for a partner to play on the seesaw. Although swings are fun if someone pushes, they are also fun when on your own. It’s hard to have a good time on the seesaw alone.

After going up and down on the seesaw for a while, most of the time we would then see if we could balance the seesaw so that it was level and both of us would be levitating with our feet off the ground. Since no two kids were the same weight, it would sometimes require one kid to move closer to the center to create balance. I even remember times that we would start at the center and try to keep balanced by each of us moving farther away from the center of the seesaw.

Have you figured out where I am going with this yet? Parenting with a partner often feels like a seesaw. Our main goal is to be close to the center of seesaw by having the same goals, expectations, rules and consequences. It’s easier to stay balanced when closer to the center. Although we often start our parenting journey with similar expectations, at some point we begin to notice differences. In every parenting partnership, there is always one person who is more strict and one who is more lenient. There is one who is more organized and one who is more cluttered. One who has a bigger temper and one who is calmer.  As the years go by, these differences can become more pronounced.

Those of us who have studied family systems know that this is one of the typical patterns that occur within a system. Left unchecked, the strict person will become more strict and the lenient person will become more lenient. Why does this happen? We tend to become more lenient or strict in an effort to balance the seesaw.

Let’s go back to the seesaw image. Imagine that you and your co-parent are starting on the seesaw face-to-face near the center. You begin to notice that your co-parent is becoming more strict on whether the kids are putting their toys away. In our seesaw analogy, that would be similar to them scooting a bit away from the center of the seesaw. This will naturally produce an imbalance in the seesaw. Inevitably, your first reaction will be to want to try to balance the seesaw by moving farther away from the center. Using the toy example, you might end up being more lenient when it comes to putting the toys away, giving the kids a break from having to clean up so often.

But your co-parent probably won’t interpret your actions as an attempt to balance the system. They might interpret that you are becoming too lenient and react by becoming even more strict about putting toys away. Pretty soon, both of you have become much more strict and lenient as a reaction to the other’s attempts at balancing the system.

Professionals that work with families see this pattern happen with lots of different topics such as chores, curfew, clothing, neatness of their rooms, hygiene, grades, disrespect, etc. As one parent becomes stricter on a certain topic, the other parent becomes more lenient in an attempt to give the child a break and balance the system.

The difficulty with this approach is that it becomes very stressful for the whole family. The kids become stressed and, depending on the kid, might begin to take advantage of the seesaw and begin to avoid the stricter parent, asking permission from the lenient parent for things, since they have learned how to split the system and get what they want. The parents become unhappy and typically fight more often.

What should you do about this pattern? If you tend to be the parent who wants the toys put away every time, instead of becoming more strict on that issue, try to lighten up. If you are the more lenient parent, try to become more strict. Do the opposite of what your instinct is telling you to do. Move closer to the center of the seesaw instead of moving farther away from your co-parent.

Yes, this is difficult. It is difficult to trust that, by moving closer to the center of the seesaw, your co-parent will also move closer to the center. But our knowledge of family systems theory tells us that in most situations, a move to the center will produce a corresponding move to the center by the other parent.

Next time you find yourself in this situation, instead of moving more toward the end of the seesaw, try moving more toward the center and see what happens.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.” He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

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