When is it okay to side with your child instead of your spouse?

Is it ever okay to go against your spouse and defend your child? Parenting experts and family counsellors weigh in

It is generally regarded as a major parenting taboo, yet freelance writer Rachel Fong recently sided with her child instead of her husband after a disagreement arose during the family's bedtime reading routine.

Her six-year-old son Micah got angry after daddy chose to read his younger sister Victoria's book choices that night, instead of his.

Mrs Fong, 31, says her husband felt that their son was being petty, but she knew Micah was upset as they had gone with Victoria's book choices for the previous three nights.

"Because I knew the background story and I saw that Micah was being blamed for something that was not his fault, I decided to stick up for my child against my spouse,"she says.

"I felt it was important to intervene there and then, because I want my child to know there is order and justice in the world."

Anything is a possible cause of conflict in day-to-day parenting, from smaller matters such as whether watching videos is allowed during meal times and the amount of vegetables a child has to consume in a day, to bigger issues including discipline, academics and perceived favouritism.

Parenting experts and family counsellors say united parenting is extremely important as it offers the children a sense of security.

In reality, however, some parents say they find it hard to refrain from disagreeing with their spouse in the presence of their children.

Public servant Sharon Yeoh, 39, had agreed with her husband that their two daughters, now aged eight and five, must learn to sleep in their own beds.

But their younger daughter has not been able to do so consistently and often attempts to snuggle up with them in bed.

Once, after being told to go back to her own bed to sleep, the little girl refused and lay down at the door of their bedroom, sobbing, and wanted to sleep on the floor.

Mrs Yeoh says she "felt so bad" that she relented, although her husband was of the opinion that they should have held on firmly to their position.

"I can be very resolute on disciplinary matters, especially things that concern values. But in this case, I did not feel that she was being naughty or defiant," she says.

"She just really wants to be near us, but we are not letting her."

Apart from this ongoing co-sleeping issue, Mrs Yeoh says she and her bank employee husband, 43, are aligned on other fronts.

Parents whom The Sunday Times spoke to say they usually take their children's side when their spouses have wronged the young ones, and/or they feel their children would be negatively affected by their spouses' handling of a situation.

Parents with more than one child say the issue becomes even more pressing when their spouse fails to see that one sibling has been bullying another.

Mrs Fong says her daughter Victoria, aged four, has a more dominant personality than Micah.

As he is easy-going, Mrs Fong says he sometimes gets wrongfully blamed when daddy is trying to settle an argument between the siblings.

That is when she will step in.

"I do not want the child who has a more meek character to feel that he will always be taken advantage of and end up having pent-up frustrations as he grows older," she says.

Her husband Fong Xiongkun, 33, is a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces. The couple have a third child, Mark, who is one.

While the intention to intervene may be noble, parents admit that their delivery is sometimes poorly executed - in a snide or sarcastic tone to their spouse.

Done properly, a disagreement before the children can be made into a learning point, says Mr Sam Kuna, president of the Singapore Association for Counselling.

The parents can "disagree agreeably", he says, and explain to their children why their views differ.

"Disagreeing does not mean being disrespectful," he says.

Ms Sarah Chua, parenting specialist at Focus on the Family Singapore, adds that parents need to "show their children maturity" in the way they address disagreements - shouting matches are a no-go.

It is also important that the united front the couple are seeking to present before their child or children is an authentic one.

Says Mr Kuna: "There is no point pretending to be united when you are not. That does not teach the child any skill - he does not get to see his parents learning how to negotiate."

He adds that it is also important for parents to talk about the disagreement that took place after things have cooled down, so that relationships can be restored.

Counsellor Kenny Chen from Reach Counselling Service adds that there should be intervention by one spouse in scenarios where the other spouse is scolding the child to the extent of belittling the child or where there is emotional abuse.

"In such scenarios, protecting the child from more harm should be a priority," he says.

Mr Kuna says parents can agree on a "signal" with each other to be used when conflicts arise between them.

In the event that one parent is lashing out at the child and it is evident to the other parent that the situation is getting out of control, the parent who is standing by ought to signal to the heated spouse that a time-out is needed.

"There should not be a situation where one parent just shuts down while the other is escalating. The child will get distressed and feel insecure as a result," he says.

Housewife Sophia Leong's family believes in taking time to apologise and seek forgiveness from one another after a conflict.

The 34-year-old says she and her husband, a public servant, encourage their two children - a daughter aged four and a son aged five - to say "Sorry" and "I forgive you" to each other.

They also do the same with each other and with their children, even though the process can be emotionally tiring.

"It is so much easier to just shelve the incident, but then, there's no learning process," says Mrs Leong.

"If I have wronged my child, it's okay to say sorry to the child. There is nothing wrong with that.

"Sometimes, we as parents need to learn to have a hold on our emotions. We need to show our children that although we fight, we always make up, so that they can model themselves after us and learn what it means to make things right."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline When is it okay to side with your child instead of your spouse?. Subscribe