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

Any type of co-parenting takes communication and hard work, especially when one partner is the primary parent. But 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). What I hear as a more significant problem is you generally disagree with your partner's parenting, and do not know where you fit in to 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?

Ask the Right Questions

This may seem obvious but the first step is to ask. 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 in regard to 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 a challenging behavior. With your sleep example, ask him if he wants to know about your specific concern.

The goal of this discussion is setting up boundaries and expectations. Once these are clearer and agreed upon, you will have a better idea of when to speak up and when to keep lips zipped. 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, which I would refer to a couple's therapist!

Start Making Changes

Once you have a foundation of clearer expectations, look for opportunities in your caregiving role to make some 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 of how 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.

For the nighttime repositioning, 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 his father is in prevention mode for a good reason? If falling out of bed has not been an actual problem, you could encourage your partner to test out not repositioning, but also offer to be the one 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 we all bring our own issues to our 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 own experiences in childhood with your parents may have shaped your thinking, and also how they contribute to emotional triggers (we all have them). This gives us all some humility and compassion for our co-parenting partners, and ourselves.

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." At the beginning, it may seem clearer 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. Just like any part of parenting, the process to figure 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.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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