CHILDREN / Ma says no but Pa says yes: Holidays can cause suppressed parental conflicts over child- rearing to erupt into rows. There are better ways to tackle them, says Angela Neustatter

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the second day of their family holiday. Beth and Robin were walking down a Brighton street, swinging five-year-old Bobby between them. Bobby wanted to stop and look in a toy shop and Beth, used to this request, suggested they pause and do this. Her usual routine was to let him have a couple of minutes looking, to discuss what they saw. When, as frequently happened, the child asked for something, his mother would say perhaps he could have it for Christmas or birthday, then move Bobby on. The routine usually worked without problems.

On this occasion when Bobby asked for a toy, Robin interrupted Beth and bought a plastic jack-in-the-box, even though Beth felt it was not something Bobby particularly wanted, and said it would make things harder for her next time. Watching Bobby press the button and delight in the action as they walked on, Robin felt vindicated. But 10 minutes later Bobby dropped the jack-in-the-box and it broke open on the pavement. He did not appear bothered.

Robin was angry and ticked Bobby off for being so careless. He burst into tears. Beth was furious. She felt that Robin, who was usually too tired after work to spend time with Bobby, was trying to buy his son's affection. Bobby picked up the mood and became whiny and difficult. The couple ended up having a bitter row which coloured the next two days.

Holidays are all too often the time when family disagreements over children erupt. Parenting, done separately much of the time, is suddenly very exposed, and parents may not like what they see of a partner's approach, as Elizabeth Howell, counsellor with Exploring Parenthood, explains. 'Parents may apparently fall out over something as slight as how many ice-creams are to be allowed in one day,' she says. 'Of course the quarrel isn't really about that but about two adults, who are generally too busy, having time to think about how they want to run the family, and who's going to assert authority, and finding that they disagree.

'One thing you can do when it's all getting too tense and everyone is having a horrible time, is to admit it's not fun and talk about it. This can relieve the stress. And if parents can voice their differences in front of the children without a slanging match, it can be useful for children to see parents disagreeing, then reaching a compromise.'

Disagreements over the upbringing of children are not, of course, exclusive to holidays. Later this month The Inside Track on Parenting, (ITV 29 August, 10.40pm), presented by Nick Ross, will focus on the subject. If parents have never really discussed their ideas and values before children are born, unanticipated conflicts may emerge as the children grow up.

Kate and Barry have a five-year-old daughter, Lea, who for several months had been getting into their bed almost every night. Kate says: 'She always insisted on being in between us and it really felt that she was trying to come between us in a classic Freudian way. And she succeeded. I usually ended up sleeping somewhere else, it was so uncomfortable.' Barry felt she was exaggerating the problem and that, left alone, Lea would in due course stop getting into their bed. Kate felt it was very important to break the habit and one evening told Lea she couldn't get into her parents' bed. 'I put a chair against the door, leaving a crack so she could see and hear us. But I wouldn't let her in. She cried and shouted, but I felt I had to stick it out. Then Barry jumped out of bed and said, 'I'm not having my daughter locked out,' and brought her in.'

The situation was now critical, Kate felt. 'Lea knew Barry was on her side and I didn't see any way of persuading her not to come into bed now. That night I said to Barry that I was doing the same again and not to interfere.' Lea cried even louder this time and shouted, 'Mummy you are killing me.'

Kate recalls: 'It was dreadful and I was in tears, but I sat it out and eventually Lea shouted 'All right, I will go]' So I took her to bed and sat with her explaining that we would all be able to sleep better and be a happy family in the daytime if she would stop waking us up. She stopped coming in after that and a few days later Barry said I had been right. I really respected him for that. Now she comes in occasionally if she feels in need of comfort, and that is fine. It feels quite different.'

The fact that Barry could recognise the importance for Kate of resolving the situation and ultimately support her in doing it, was valuable for the couple but also for Lea, in the view of Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute of Family Therapy. 'A united couple setting boundaries makes a child feel secure even if he or she is protesting. But being able to play parents off each against each other can make a child feel very insecure.' Or, he says, a child picking up the problem between parents may develop behavioural difficulties as an unconscious way of diverting attention to itself, in order to protect the parents' relationship.

Jenkins suggests that setting aside a time specially to talk about disagreements is valuable. 'A good way is for each parent to have five minutes to say what they want, without being interrupted. Then the other parent should have the same and at the end they can discuss what has come out.

'They should then look at why a particular issue is so important: is it wanting to please their own parents by doing things the way they were done for them? Is it about having a feeling of power or a need for authority in the relationship with the partner? It is useful to try to see whether it is really about what is best for the child and for partners to try to understand why the other feels strongly.'

Couples who find they cannot sort out their disagreement over children by themselves would do well, Jenkins suggests, to ask their vicar, GP, or a friend to act as mediator. Or they may find it useful to attend a few family therapy sessions. When working with such couples, Jenkins often uses some of the techniques suggested in Getting to Yes: negotiating agreement without giving in, by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Century Business pounds 6.99).

Susanne and David came into bitter conflict over the kind of education they wanted for their son, Sebastian. But they were prepared to look for a solution rather than cling to fixed positions.

David had been to public school and wanted the boy to do the same, because he felt it would give him the best educational opportunity. Susanne had attended a state school and believed Sebastian would get a good enough education as well as the social experience she felt, passionately, was important. But their local comprehensive did not have a good academic record, and the couple fought ever more heatedly as Sebastian approached his last year at primary school. Then a friend told Susanne of a comprehensive in Oxfordshire which had an excellent academic reputation; she persuaded David to look at the school with her and he agreed that it was excellent. They sold their house in London and moved near the school. Both now feel it was the best possible solution.

Exploring Parenthood, Latimer Education Centre, 194 Freston Road, London W10 6TT (tel: 081-960 1678). Institute of Family Therapy, 43 New Cavendish Street, London W1 7RG (tel: 071-935 1651).