I Don't Agree With How My Partner Parents His Kid, What Can I Do?

It can be tricky when one partner really doesn't agree with the other's way of doing things. Here's how to handle that.

An illustration of a sleeping boy.
Photo: Illustration: Emma Darvick.

Concerned Partner

I don't agree with how my partner parents his child. For example, he wakes his 5-year-old son up in the middle of the night to reposition him because he's fearful his son will fall out of bed. I do not agree with this habit one iota, but I am not the boy's parent. Am I making a big deal of a harmless habit, or is my boyfriend doing irrevocable damage to his child? Is there any way I can have a say?

—Concerned Partner

Dear Concerned Partner,

If the three of you were in my office, I would ask many questions to determine if your concern about your partner's nighttime repositioning is a "harmless habit" or causing "irrevocable damage" (the latter is unlikely). However, what I hear as a more significant problem is you generally disagree with your partner's parenting and do not know where you fit into this tricky equation.

Since you are taking the time and effort to reach out, I imagine you and your partner have a long-term, serious commitment, which makes this question all the more important. This means you are indeed an influential part of his son's life, and you do not need the label of "parent" to have a voice.

Yet, there is still a difference between a parent and another caregiver, and I understand your hesitance to speak up against a parent's parenting! In fact, my general rule is not to, but that is geared more toward in-laws and judgmental strangers at the playground.

So, how do you find that balance between respecting your partner's primary parenting role while recognizing that as his significant other, you are also an important adult in his son's life? Read on for tips on handling parenting disagreements when you aren't the primary parent.

Ask the Right Questions

This may seem obvious, but the first step is to ask questions about co-parenting in a household with two caregivers. Begin with yourself: How involved do you want to be? What do you think your role should be?

Then ask him: What does he want from you regarding co-parenting? Where does he see you fitting in?

This conversation can center around caregiving tasks, setting up and enforcing household rules, and even bigger parenting decisions like how to handle challenging behavior. With your sleep example, ask him if he wants to know about your specific concern.

The goal of this discussion is to set up boundaries and expectations. Once these are clearer and agreed upon, you will better understand when to speak up and when not to.

I would encourage you, however, to ensure you have some voice and involvement; if your partner says he's got it all and there's no room for you in the parenting arena, that signals a bigger problem with a different solution, in which case, I would recommend a couple's therapist.

Start Making Changes

Once you have more explicit expectations, look for opportunities in your caregiving role to make changes.

Maybe you model a new approach and see what happens, or do your own research about how to tackle a parenting dilemma differently and present it to him. For any co-parenting relationship, it is essential to keep talking and negotiating, obviously keeping the child's well-being at the forefront.

The problem is when you see two pathways to prioritize a child's well-being. However, this is really no different from traditional two-parent households, where parenting disagreements and conflicts regularly flare up.

To come up with a change for your example of the nighttime repositioning, you'll have to ask some questions first. For example, is the child's sleep disrupted, or is it a brief bleary moment of eyes opening? Has there been a history of the child falling out of bed, and is his father in prevention mode for a good reason?

If falling out of bed has not been an actual problem, a proposed change could be to encourage your partner to test out not repositioning and then offer to help the child in the middle of the night if he does fall out of bed.

Understand Your Partner

Although I will not venture into "diagnosing" your partner's habit of waking up his 5-year-old in fear of him falling out of his bed, many parents find that fear and anxiety drive parenting behaviors. If this is true for your partner, I am not judging but simply pointing out that everyone brings their own issues to their roles as parents.

It might be helpful for you to get a better understanding of your partner's worries and fears about his son. If you have more clarity about where he's coming from with his choices, you will be more effective in addressing your concerns with him.

You are also not exempt. Even if you do not consider yourself a parent, you are in a caregiver role. This can bring up your own issues, no matter how much you wish this weren't true. Reflect on how your childhood experiences may have shaped your thinking and how they contribute to emotional triggers (everyone has them). This can offer humility and compassion for co-parenting partners and yourself.

Having this awareness also gives you more credibility to speak up. If you can own your limitations and areas of weakness rather than communicate that you know best, your partner is more likely to listen and be open rather than defensive.

The Bottom Line

For anyone in a serious relationship with a child involved, it becomes impossible to be only in the role of "partner." In the beginning, it may seem easier to stay out of any part of parenting, but as you become more intertwined in your loved one's life, this no longer makes sense.

Like any part of parenting, figuring out what works for your family unit of three requires hard work, mistakes, tough conversations, and messy emotions. But the reward of having that family is worth it.

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