Preliminary note: The below is taken from a chapter in our book Parenting by Temperament. There are a few terms here that are defined earlier in the book but not in this chapter. These are:
Thinking vs. Feeling. These are a pair of opposing MBTI temperament preferences. It is assumed that everyone prefers one style or the other in decision making. Thinkers try to concentrate on reason and logic and do their best to ignore or supress feeling or emotion during this process. Feelers, on the other hand are maximally sensitive to the emotional aspects of any situation and rely most on this for decision making.
Demandingness and Responsiveness. These terms represent two sides of the roles taken by every parent. Discipline is the closest to a definition of Demandingness, but it adds the idea that there are core expectations for good discipline–age-appropriate demands for behavior. Responsiveness covers all the nurturant aspects of parenting–caring and love, awareness of the child’s feelings, understanding of the child’s needs.
When moms and dads disagree: The Story
It’s nearly 9 p.m. and Joe is getting the last child settled in for the night, having taken the task over from his wife who was clearly getting nowhere. He is once again feeling both angry and guilty. It has taken most of the evening to calm down the excitable five year old, and a similar amount of time to shepherd the eight year old through his homework. Joe’s patience reached the breaking point when his wife,Sandy, was still sweetly coaxing the 5 year old to bed after an hour. At that point he yelled, lost his temper and took over. Soon that five year old was wailing and his older brother was calling dad a mean- tempered monster. As he escorted the eldest through the living room, to finally put him to bed, Joe caught his wife,Sandy, giving him an icy stare. Obviously the day’s troubles weren’t over.
He is absolutely certain it is his wife’s fault. She will not take a firm hand with the problem and the boys have learned to play endlessly on her patient nature. At the same time, she is furious when Joe steps in to take charge. She criticizes his “loud” voice, and constantly accuses him of being utterly indifferent to the children’s needs and feelings. And now, there they are again, ready for another bout of recriminations.
Does this sound familiar? Of all the preference differences, the Thinking/Feeling pair have the greatest influence on your demandingness and responsiveness balance. Obviously here, Joe is inclined to lean heavily on demandingness, whileSandyemphasizes responsiveness. And, although it sounds like a tired stereotype, chances are that in any parent pair, the mother will be more skilled and more naturally inclined toward responsiveness, and the father toward demandingness. This is certainly not always true; some couples may both be high in responsiveness, some both high in demandingness, and some showing greater male responsiveness and female demandingness. The odds, however, are tilted in this male-demandingness and female responsiveness direction.
No doubt this stereotypical male/female pattern is partly the result of social learning during development. However, there is good evidence, accumulated over many years of research, that inborn temperament also plays an important part. In particular, data collected with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator shows that there are common male/female differences in preference for Thinking versus Feeling. The Myers-Briggs findings, gathered over many years, indicates that about 56% of all men versus 25% of all women, fall in the Thinker category. Thus, by the law of averages, dad is more likely to be the Thinker, and mom the Feeler.
In deciding, for a simple example, whether a bed time rule could be stretched for a child who wanted to watch a particular TV program, our Thinker dad would be concerned about the precedent it would set, and the problems that this might produce on other nights. Feeler mom might have greater concern for how important this particular program was to the child, and be more willing to make an exception. His concern would probably be that she would be willing to do this over and over again—making not one, but an endless series of exceptions. Her concern would be that he thinks abstract rules are more important than the happiness of his children.
If you, as the reader, already are certain that one or the other is right, you are at the heart of the problem. The truth is that we see the world so clearly and strongly from our own perspective—a perspective given by both experience and temperament—that it seems unimaginable that someone we care about sees it differently. The repetitive fights over the same issue start from the assumption that the other person is just misguided. If you can just find the right, really convincing words, or just say it more strongly, or, or, or, then the beloved other will surely see the light.
Not going to happen. The first hard step in reaching a better understanding, is the acceptance that this can never be true. If you are really a very different Thinking/Feeling pair, this difference is not going to go away. More generally it is useful information to recognize that when you are having the same fight, over and over again, temperament differences are nearly always somewhere at the bottom of it.
Well, so then what? Each of you might start out thinking that the other person should just let you handle it all, you with your superior wisdom! Even if you could pull off that trick, it would be the wrong answer, because children do need both responsiveness and demandingness—and they need you to uphold a common standard together, as far as you possibly can. So, as you look at your spouse across a Thinking/Feeling divide, the first thing you need to acknowledge is that the difference is not going to go away, but the second thing you must take to heart is that you each have something vital to contribute.
The very things that our fictional couple have been fighting over do matter. The dad needs to recognize that firm discipline that ends only in a state of rage is not working well. We hope that our children will end their days ready for a peaceful night’s sleep, and we hope that for ourselves as well. On the other hand, everything we know about demandingness tells us that inconsistency, vacillation, and lack of rules that children will respect, is a recipe for family chaos.
Once both parties admit that they bring their share of problems to this, they will have to hammer out serious compromises to make sure the children get what they need. This will take lots of respect and lots of thought. What sorts of rules and consequences can the Feeler accept and live with? Where can the Thinker compromise those unbending standards? Which parent may be better at handling certain situations?
With this couple, several possibilities come to mind. Let’s look at the simple example of having or not having exceptions to rules. If rules need exceptions, from mom’s point of view, and rules need to seem firm, from dad’s point of view, perhaps this couple could agree on having bedtime exceptions on a pre-planned basis. One night per week? Only on weekend nights? That may still seem too rigid to mom and too loose to dad, but that is what compromises are all about. More broadly, within this framework, they might both realize that firmness is dad’s natural strength. If they can agree on the rules and the exceptions, perhaps the dad really could take over the bedtime discipline. He would be far less likely to do this in anger if it were his task from the start. Quite possibly another compromise might be that mom agrees to this, contingent on his bringing it off without losing his temper. As long as it is clear that the partners are in agreement in principle, there is nothing wrong with letting the better disciplinarian handle certain situations—provided he/she really is the better disciplinarian.
Preferences and temperaments are real. They cannot be argued away. The better arguer in any pair may succeed in making the partner feel in the wrong, or guilty or some messy combination of both, but like murder, temperament will out. The behavior will return, the issue will return, the fight will return until you find some acceptable compromise. If you both open your hearts to the reality of temperament differences, there will always be creative ways to compromise that will benefit your partnership, your children, and your joy in family.
Afterword. Thinking and feeling, of course, are not the only preferences where there may be serious parent disagreement. With respect to demandingness, Perceiving (a relaxed,easy going, grasshopper sort of style) and Judging ( a serious, organized good ant sort of style) would run a close second. There parents don’t disagree on how to make and enforce rules, as much as they disagree on what rules are needed. A houseful of scattered toys may reflect happy play to one parent and nerve-wracking chaos to another. Certainly, if our Thinker dad were also a strong Judger, and our Feeler mom a strong Perceiver, their road to compromise would have been even harder and more painful. We have emphasized Thinking/Feeling here simply because this difference seems to stir up the most deep seated anger among parents who differ radically on this.
* Harkey, Nancy & Jourgensen, Teri (2009). Parenting by Temperament: The New Revised Raising Cuddlebugs and BraveHearts. Createspace: Amazon.com
[**] Myers, I. B, McCaully, M. H. et al. (1998). MBTI Manual: A guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. Palo Alto CA.