We all come to parenthood with a certain set of expectations and assumptions about raising kids. Naturally, we assume our partner will share our healthy outlook. That is, until we find ourselves butting heads in the midst of a heated child-rearing dilemma.How do we navigate a parenting style conflict without confusing our kids and harming our relationship with our partner?
Discuss your upbringing with your partner. “In a perfect world, we would have these conversations when we are dating,” says adolescent and family therapist Melissa Perry, LPC.
How we raise our kids is often dictated by how our parents raised us - or how we wish we’d been raised. As a couple, discuss each other’s childhoods. For example, “What was your parents’ disciplinary style? How did they interact with you?”
Listen to understand and empathize with each other’s experiences.
“Most people know that it doesn’t feel good to scream at their kids. Most people know it doesn’t feel good to hit them, but they do it because they say, ‘I turned out okay,’” says Cati Winkel, a wellness coach who works with individuals and families.
“Once we start figuring out what that’s created in our lives, how we interact and how we have relationships with people, we start to recognize, ‘Oh, maybe things could have been a little bit different,’” says Winkel.
Parent as a team. Even if you are divorced or separated, when it comes to parenting, focus on presenting a united front.
“It’s fine for parents to each have their own way of interacting with their children. As a matter of fact, it’s healthy because it teaches children to be more flexible and to adapt better in different environments,” says Colleen Huff, a certified parent educator.
Discuss the ideal home environment you want to create, the types of family rules that are important to each of you, and zero in on common goals.
Come up with a plan. Agree on age-appropriate rules and consequences in your home. For a toddler or preschooler, you might have two or three rules, like no hitting or throwing toys, while a five-year-old might have up to five rules.
“If kids know the expected behavior, then they’re free to do something else, which is going to be exploring and learning, playing and engaging, and feeling self-confident versus feeling timid, inward, and insecure,” says Huff.
Establish reasonable consequences for unacceptable behavior but be flexible. For example, you might use the corner for a timeout for your child, while your partner may prefer that your child sits in a time-out chair.
By agreeing on a plan of action for common scenarios and remaining consistent with consequences, you can avoid reactive parenting.
Manage conflict. Vastly different approaches to parenting can send mixed messages to your child.
“Your child might start to identify one parent as the parent to avoid and the other parent as the parent to get what they want out of them - or use parents against each other,” says Perry. “If your goal is to both love your child and to both parent them, then you can probably come to some sort of compromise.”
Suppose you want your child to do their homework right away after school to free up the evening for other interests. Then, your partner comes home, dismisses this rule and lets your child play before homework.
A good way to address the situation might be for you to say: “I’ve noticed that Johnny struggles to complete his homework if he puts it off until later in the day. This structure in our afternoons seems to help. I could really use your support on this.”
Then give your partner an opportunity to respond without interrupting them.
“Focus on the problem, not the person, and focus on the actual issue at hand in the moment, not what the parent or child did or didn’t do in the last week or week before,” advises Perry.
Also, use reflective listening to validate what your partner says, which shows that you care about their perception or opinion. In reflective listening, you restate in a non-condescending way what you think you heard: “I think I’m hearing you say ______. Is this what you mean?”
“Oftentimes we misunderstand, and we base our next answer on an assumption of understanding,” says Perry.
Is it okay to fight in front of your child? If you can remain calm, it’s healthy for kids to see their parents work out a conflict and come to a resolution.
“If we teach children from a young age how to properly deal with conflict, that’s only going to set them up for success,” says Winkel.
But if you are too angry to discuss the situation immediately, give each other permission to cool off before working through the issue, together.
“Agree to walk away, but have a set, specific time that you are going to come back and talk about it again,” advises Perry. “A lot of times people fight, then they cool down, but they don’t ever come back and resolve what was said in the heat of the moment.”
Without coming to resolutions for problems that come up in our relationships, resentment and disengagement from each other can set in, potentially harming your partnership.
Need help strengthening your communication skills with your partner or ex to resolve parenting differences? Consult with a licensed family therapist for helpful support and strategies.
Types of parenting styles
Source: Developmental Psychology, Vanderbilt University
Christa is a nationally-published freelance writer. Her latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.
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