If there's ever a time in life when it helps to be on the same page with your spouse, it's when you have kids. Faced with frequent decisions that impact our children's well-being, parenting is hard enough without spending precious time and energy disagreeing. Yet even if you both start off wanting kids — which isn't always true, as noted recently in The Washington Post — once our children arrive, parenting styles and priorities sometimes diverge.
Why do we part ways around parenting?
- The very differences that drew you together as a couple, pull you apart as parents. For example: You love your wife's free spirit, but think she lets your kids get away with way too much.
- Based on the information you had before your kids arrived, you thought you were aligned but weren't. For example: You agreed not to spoil your future-children, but forgot to define your terms. You believe spoiling is about things — toys, clothes — whereas your husband equates it with emotional coddling. He buys them a ton of stuff; you insist you can never be too tender with your children.
- You discover parenting strategies after you have kids. For example: When you were pregnant, you agreed to sleep train your daughter at 6 months. After she arrived, you thought sleep training barbaric, while your spouse saw it as crucial to everyone's survival.
The goal isn't to always be in sync, but to handle differences effectively.
How we deal with our parenting differences is important to, well, our parenting. Because our kids often witness our disagreements, they learn how to argue from us (Yes, yes, it would be great if we fought beyond our kids' earshot, but that isn't always possible.) It's our job to teach our kids how to disagree respectfully.
My favorite tool for tackling different parenting styles is: Curiosity.
While it might have killed the cat, genuine curiosity has saved many a marriage. I emphasized genuine because curiosity is only effective when sincere, when combined with a real desire to understand your spouse's perspective and a willingness to suspend judgment, especially if you don't agree with him or her.
What's important to you about your parenting strategy?
I love that question. As simple as it sounds, the more we focus on what's important to our spouse about his or her choices and suggestions, the greater our chances of finding a shared way of talking about our differences. Related questions: What outcomes do you expect in using this approach? How do you hope our kids will respond to it?
Ask these questions, or some versions of them, to start getting on the same page.
In most cases, we either agree about what's important or, at the very least, we're capable of understanding why our partners care about something that's not on our priority list. Trying to understand them allows us to get to a place of constructive compromise far faster than trying to prove that our way of doing things is right.
Let's say the issue you're facing is that your 7-year-old goes to your spouse if she doesn't get the answer she wants from you, and your spouse sometimes contradicts you. To remedy this problem, you propose that, as the parent who spends the most time with your daughter, you should take the lead making decisions. Your spouse thinks you should confer more.
What outcome are you both looking for? That your child gets a consistent response from her parents and that you act like a united front.
You differ in how to get there. Your spouse wants to be more involved in decision-making, to feel as if parenting is a collaborative venture and that he's also responsive to your kids' needs. You want to respond to her requests because you have more information about your child and, as a result, believe you know best what will work for your kid; plus with so little spare time, the quickest strategy is the best. All understandable perspectivesand all worthy of respect.
Now that we understand what's important to each of us, what do we do?
Here are three options:
- Pick one strategy and test it out for a period of time. Then, try the other for the same length of time. Discuss how you think each strategy worked for your child and for you. Continue with the one that worked best or try number 2.
- Create a hybrid strategy. Focus on satisfying what's important to both of you, while keeping your eye on the prize of the outcome(s) you want.
- If you're still passionately opposed to your spouse's parenting strategy—meaning, if this is a sword you're willing to die on—try to keep judgment at bay and explain what you're worried will happen to your kids, or your relationship with them, or both, if you adopt your partner's approach. Ask your spouse to either help you get through your fears or, if you really can't budge, ask him/her to let your strategy stand for the time being, with an agreement to revisit the issue in a week or month or some other predetermined deadline.
It would be wonderful if our individual parenting styles always matched. But it can also be wonderful to turn our differences into a joint parenting style, one that we create together and that help us teach our kids the power of collaboration and respect.
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