I just had guests for the weekend. Among the familial guests were a set of parents with their four-year-old daughter and 11 year-old son. For fun, let's just call them Buffy and Jodi (if you don't get the reference, you are too young). For the parents, let's just call them Carol and Mike.
Mike is not the most attentive parent in the world. He didn't really want kids and isn't really plugged into their developmental stages. He lives more parallel to the rest of the family than in concert with them. Recently, however, he lost his job and has since felt as though he wanted to participate. So, he has started (on his own schedule) intervening with Carol's parenting. Mike is not so much pitching in as questioning Carol's strategies.
Carol is not perfect either (no one is). Carol is a driven career woman and can sometimes be a bit distracted in parenting from her job. She has trouble being consistent in rules or following through with her contingencies. That is, she might impatiently threaten to remove television all week, then later remember that she'll need them to watch tv during her teleconference later that day - so, she can't always follow through. She may even just carelessly threaten a consequence that isn't feasible. The kids can't really know when her threats for punishment are real or not - so, their responses are inconsistent.
Since Mike's been laid off, however, there's been a constant barrage of push-me pull-you parenting. Mike wants Jodie to excel in one class, and works for three hours ever day on that, but is angry that Carol can't get Jodie to satisfactorily finish all of his work in the other five subjects. Carol is angry that Jodie is so tired from one subject that he can't get through the rest when she gets home from work. Mike wants the kids available to snuggle and visit with in the evening, but doesn't want to deal with any problematic bedtime issues. He also sleeps in and has no interest in getting them to school in the morning. Carol is frustrated that the kids are too tired to move in the morning and every morning is a struggle, and that her efforts for bedtime routines are undermined (until Mike disappears into his family office leaving Carol with tired and grumpy kids). Mike cannot bear to see his four-year-old princess upset - so, he will stop at nothing to keep her from being unhappy.
This weekend, we saw the epitome of Mike undermining Carol's (inconsistent) parenting to keep this child from exploding into a tyrant worthy of Violet Beauregarde (the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka). The kids ate dinner at a separate table from the adults, so they could cut-up a little and we could have adult conversation. I had made a "Bunny Cake" for Easter dessert. Neither Mike nor Carol were completely on with this - we put out plates (appropriately cut and divvied up) for each child, set their places, gave them drinks and told them to eat their dinners. Mike hovered back and forth over Buffy to insure her safety (?). She cried that she wouldn't eat this or that. Mike tried to negotiate, "Oh, sweetie, if you eat this we'll give you lots of candy and lots of the bunny cake". Carol sporadically left our table to berate Buffy for not eating - you won't get dessert if you don't eat. We let our kids cut their own meat, get seconds, and generally be independent through the dinner (if a bit giggly). Our youngest lost it and was briefly incarcerated on the stairs (time-out) before he got to rejoin the bunch.
Finally, our children were all finished, as were the grown-ups. Jodie had eaten his dinner. But, poor Buffy was suffering with the dreaded green beans (yeck!!). Mike continued to cajole and Carol threaten. Finally, Carol stated "you need to eat these three green beans, if you do that - you can have cake". While I wasn't there, a credible witness has told me that Mike popped the three green beans into his own mouth and told Carol that Buffy ate it. So, finally, after 45 minutes of threats from Carol, cajoling from Mike, and shrieking from Buffy - she got her cake. Mike undermined all of Carol's parenting efforts, and everyone suffers the consequence of a child being rewarded for behaving like a tyrant.
If there has to be one basic rule for parenting - present a united front. Don't let the kids tear you apart. In the end, what you have is each other, and the kids will figure life out easier if there are fewer sets of rules to navigate.