How to Parent with a Partner When You Can't Agree on a Parenting Style
Before having children, I dreamt about my ideal of motherhood. I had my style and rules for how I'd want to raise my kids all set to go. But in all my planning, I made one tiny mistake: I forgot to consider my husband.
Now that we have two girls, we've realized that our styles of parenting often clash. I believe in having the bassinet by the bed for the entire first year, and he prefers the baby in her own bedroom as soon as possible. I have stricter rules around meals and snacks, and he is the "candy man." On some days, it can get testy as we struggle to see eye to eye.
We are far from the only couple to go through this. Take Anna and William, a New Jersey couple who prefers not to give their last name, has always enhanced each other through their unique personality differences. But once they had two little girls of their own, his authoritarian parenting started to cause friction in the home. "He wants two toddlers to be quiet and perfect all the time. It's just unrealistic—they're toddlers! And I'm supposed to enforce these rules that I just don't agree with, so we are very inconsistent," says Anna. As for how they resolve their differences? "We try our best not to argue in front of the kids and resolve it in private," says Anna. "That helps, but we could use more tools to help with our inconsistencies."
Unfortunately, we don't get the opportunity to test drive our partner's parenting before children arrive. And no approach is necessarily right or wrong. But, when couples find themselves in a situation with opposing parenting styles, what can they do to be successful as a couple, parents, and create a positive home environment? Luckily, total agreement in style is not essential for healthy kids. But some help may be needed for couples to survive the fallout from constant clashing.
Here are six things experts say partners can do to work together during these challenging moments.
Become clear on your style.
Even though couples don't need to align, as individuals, it is helpful to become aware of your parenting style and what beliefs and habits you are bringing from your own childhood home. Then you can deliberately decide if that is how you wish to parent. "The parents I work with may have been raised in one style and want to adapt," says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a certified professional coach for parents of complex children and CEO of ImpactParents.com. What worked in the past may no longer be what's best for your family. "Children today need parents who will communicate more consciously and collaboratively," adds Taylor-Klaus.
Reserve the parenting critique for later.
If you witness your partner behaving in a way that is contrary to how you'd react, choose to let it go until you can talk one-on-one, suggests Bonnie Harris, M.S. Ed., a specialist in parenting and child behavior based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, who regularly addresses the issue of different parenting styles with struggling couples. It is better for the children not to witness parental disputes. It's also beneficial for the relationship to avoid spotlighting the other parent in a critical light.
Use a catchphrase when help is needed.
Treading on your partner's toes in the middle of disciplining can lead to resentment later. However, your partner may genuinely need a save from a situation that is out of hand. Finding a way to signal your needs in the moment can help you work collaboratively, without confusion. "My husband and I used the word 'Rope,'" says Taylor-Klaus, "meaning we needed to get pulled out of there."
The code word also doesn't need to be kept secret from the kids. "It's OK to use a known code word in front of the kids so you can be honest about your emotions. By being transparent you're saying, 'I want to be more in control than I am, and I need to take some time to manage my emotions.' It's actually a good lesson for them to learn. No one is perfect."
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Create opportunities for couple time.
Protecting and nourishing a couple's relationship should be a high priority, says Harris. If possible, take weekly date nights. If that's not an option, make time to connect with your partner at home when the children are not present. After the kids go to bed, try to plan a late-night candlelit dinner or snuggle up for a movie night-in. It can also help to set up weekly family meetings so you can speak openly with your partner in a calm environment.
Seek coaching when necessary.
It's not unusual for differences in style to land you and your partner on opposite sides of the spectrum and become impossible to handle on your own. If a helicopter mom partners with a free-range dad, for example, the couple may benefit from working with a therapist or coach to create balance within the family. While several parenting styles can work together without much disruption, when the divide is immense, an impartial expert can be a welcome addition to the family dynamic.
Know it's never too late.
Many couples may build their parenting framework early. Others may only consider it after the family shows signs of distress. Is there ever a point at which it is too late to fix the damage caused by rowing parents? As parents, we often hear about the precious developmental period of the early years and may feel the pressure of a ticking clock. But there is never a point in child development that would be considered too late to have changes that make a positive impact, says Harris. There is always time to improve, and children will significantly benefit anytime parents choose to work more collaboratively in their parenting style. "As long as there is trust," adds Harris, "the positive impact of change is always achievable."