Mom vs. Dad: Navigating Parenting Differences With All Good Intentions
By Dr. Charles Sophy
Keep 'Em Off My Couch
Let's face it: raising children can be quite the adventure. Rewarding at one turn, challenging at the next - it's the ultimate roller-coaster for the parenting thrill seeker. In the Game of Life, you rolled the dice and accepted the role of co-parent. While the rules seem deceptively simple, (raise child into healthy adult), the game is often complicated by differences in parenting styles between partners. It's these differences, if unresolved, that can abandon you in the land of defeat and leave you feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, with "game over" flashing on your internal video screen.
Bridging a significant difference in parenting styles is one of the most difficult aspects of building a family. Parenting is the substantial task of balancing your beliefs and values (about child development, love, tradition and discipline) with your childhood experiences, in order to nurture healthy and secure children. Add a co-parent to the equation - with their own beliefs, values and experiences - and suddenly, the balancing act becomes more complex.
Let's pretend: It's the weekend. The sun is shining and there isn't a cloud in the sky. You and your parent partner decide to take your young son, Joey, for a relaxing Sunday picnic in the park. Your partner loads the picnic basket with bottles of water, healthy ham and cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread (no crust for little Joey), and slices up a watermelon for a refreshing treat after a few games of touch football. You hop on your bikes and peddle to the park, laughing all the way as you and Joey play follow the leader and he tries to copy your "pop-a-wheelies" with varying degrees of success, your partner watching warily from behind.
Finally, the park in sight, you all race to be the first one there, Joey pedaling as fast as his little legs will let him. You and your partner are on his tail until the last moment when you both ease off to allow Joey the victory. Elated and winded, Joey hops off his bike and requests a ride on the swings. You turn to your partner and say, "I'll take him. Relax. Enjoy your lunch." Joey takes your hand and you toddle off to the swings. He climbs aboard, ready for the dizzying heights and squeals as each push sends him higher and higher.
Seconds later, your anxious parent partner is at your side, saying "Don't push him so high! He looks motion sick. Joey hold tight!" The comments sting, prompting feelings of anger that your partner would think you are not being safe with your child, resentment and even inadequacy. To add insult to the injury, little Joey immediately picks up your partner's hesitation, looks confused and timid, and loudly announces "Daddy, stop!" You quickly catch him and ease his swing into a stop position and watch with mixed emotions as Joey leaps off and runs into your partner's arms, whimpering as he's led back to the picnic area.
You slink back to join them, angry, hurt and frustrated, and eat your lunch in silence. Lunch over; you all wearily climb onto your bikes for the seemingly endless ride home.
How did our happy day go wrong? What, if anything, should be done about it? Do you simply hope and pray for the arrival of Monday morning and the refuge of the work routine? No! It's essential to communicate with your partner.
Plan a Response
Often, our first reaction when faced with a difference in styles is, "That's not what I would do." Conflicts bubble to the surface when one or both partners operate with "my way is the right way" mentality. Discussing and resolving a conflict is the only way to minimize the negative impact differing parenting styles can have on the family. An unresolved conflict in parenting styles is one of leading causes of partner breakups.
Relying on some of the following may minimize your distress as you plan a response:
Communication: Take time to discuss each other's parenting styles and values. Work on listening to your partner as carefully as you would like them to listen to you.
Awareness (self and others, especially your child): Be aware if your own childhood is influencing how you are reacting to your child or your co-parent, and assess if your reaction is a fit for today's situation. Ask yourself: Why did you react that way? Why did they?
Ownership (your actions/non-actions): Don't play the blame game. Examine what role your actions or non-actions played in the conflict.
Control (who has it; who needs it): Understand each other's needs for this vital resource. Strive to be more flexible and to not have to always be in control. Never undermine your partner or your partner's parenting in front of your children.
Resolution (bring issues to closure): Unresolved issues are a sure course to dissolution. Don't put off dealing with the important conflicts.
Keep in mind: Despite your differences, you both want what's best for the children. This wasn't the first conflict and it probably won't be the last. The next time you and your spouse lock horns over a parenting matter, remember to relax, be compassionate, and know that your kids need you both.