5 Ways to Handle Friends with Different Parenting Styles

Two Moms in Kitchen
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

While friends don't have to agree all the time, having different parenting philosophies can make it seem like you're speaking totally different languages. "It can be polarizing when you get along with someone well but your parenting styles clash," says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C., and author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends. "The two of you may start to think, 'What are we going to talk about if we can't talk about how we are raising our kids?' "

Not to mention the fact that each time a friend disagrees with your parenting choices, it can feel like criticism. "When your friend tells you how she does something—and we all know people who believe their way is best—you might feel defensive or doubt yourself," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist in New Jersey. "It feels like what you're doing is being questioned, and that's unnerving." While debates about time-outs or breast versus bottle are nothing new, parenting rants on Facebook and pics on Instagram amplify differences.

Of course, that doesn't mean you have to ditch your friends. Managing your relationships just takes finesse.

1. Don’t Jump to Conclusions

When a friend raises an eyebrow as you ply your crying 1-year-old with puffs to calm her down, it's natural to feel offended—but try not to take all of your disagreement personally. "It might sound or look like judgment, but it's not going to do your friendship any good to start thinking, 'She's attacking who I am as a person,' " says Dr. Bonior. "You have to be able to let things go."

Remember, too, that often a friend's questions about your way of doing things are truly out of curiosity—navigating parenthood, especially the first time, can feel like the clueless leading the clueless. Exhausted moms, for example, might be willing to rethink a strategy that isn't working. When the friend who was horrified by my cry-it-out leanings started asking about how I had set up a naptime routine that actually seemed to work, I thought she was gathering more fodder for disapproval—until she said she might try it.

2. Lend Her Your Ears—Not Your Advice

During a pal's naptime crisis, you may want to shout, "Just put him in the crib and leave him!" But a judgy comment like that won't do any good. Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, which provides online training for parents of toddlers to teens, says that if you know that you and your friend generally don't agree on parenting issues, you shouldn't offer tips unless you're asked for them. "Unsolicited advice will only create more conflict or tension," she says. "If your friend asks for advice, absolutely share it. But be sensitive about how you offer it. Try, 'This may not feel comfortable for you since I know we do a lot differently, but it has worked for us.' "

More often than not, moms whose kids won't eat or nap (or whatever the problem of the day is) aren't looking for advice so much as someone to listen. "Being open and saying 'I'm here for you if you want to talk' can go a long way," McCready says.

Two Moms Drinking Wine
Priscilla Gragg

When comparing notes becomes one awkward conversation after another, it might be a good idea to take the subject off the table. That's easier said than done in today's hyper-parenting world, but making the effort to take a step back can be a refreshing mental break. "There is life outside the sleeping and eating and pooping of your kids, and sometimes it's important to say to yourself, 'Okay, maybe this will be the friend I occasionally go to the movies with or who comes over after the kids are asleep to have a glass of wine and talk about celebrity gossip,' " says Dr. Bonior.

After all, you are more than your mom status. "Being a mom isn't your only role," McCready says. "Instead of always discussing the kids, it can be energizing and liberating to talk about your work, books you want to read, or vacation plans."

4. Take a Break

If there's no avoiding the mommy talk and your opposing outlooks are driving a wedge between the two of you, it might be time to schedule fewer playdates or talk less frequently for a bit. Says Dr. Bonior: "The good thing is, if you had a long-standing friendship before this, you can rest assured this phase will pass. Nobody is still talking about breastfeeding when the kids are about to start kindergarten."

Should things get especially bad, remember why you and your pal were close to begin with. "Old friends know your history, and as you age you rely on them to talk with you about memories from your early years. Those relationships have value beyond just being mom friends," says Dr. Newman. "You don't want to ruin a friendship because you sleep with your baby in your bed and your friend has hers in a crib, because your baby is not going to be in your bed forever."

5. Remember, There’s No One “Right” Way to Parent

Research backs up the idea that contrary parenting styles can both work. A 2014 Stanford study found that even when it came to "tiger mothers" versus "Westernstyle"—or hyper-strict versus more permissive—both can be equally effective. If you can look beyond the comparisons and the me-vs.-you of it all, you may find that the contrast in styles actually offers some comfort. "It's a great reminder that 'Wow, we all do things so distinctly, but everybody's kid is turning out to be pretty much okay,' " Dr. Bonior says. "It's a good reality check."

No matter how drastically divergent your methods are, keep in mind that you and your friend have the same intention. "In the end, we're all just trying to do the best job possible for our kids," McCready says. "She may think you're nuts for using disposable diapers, and you may think her style is strange, but you're both trying to be a good mom."

Plus, in the end, isn't seeing things differently better than not seeing each other at all?

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