Relationships are hard. Parenting is hard. Combine those two and you’re in for some bumps in the road large enough to rival those rutted rainforest paths that break your axle and pop your tires. No two people can agree on everything. Not even, or especially not, how to raise a kid to be a functional member of society.
Despite lots of conversations in the months leading up to our son’s birth, my husband and I butted heads on everything from circumcision to co-sleeping to how old he should be before playing Super Mario games. He’s authoritarian, I’m laid back. He’s less willing to let things slide, I’m more prone to be a slacker. I think attachment parenting is legit, while he spent the first year telling me to put the baby in a crib so I could get some sleep.
At the beginning, we fought. We both wanted the best for our son, but as new parents, neither of us had any idea what that actually looked like. So we clashed. Sometimes it was intense, as those early days so often are. But as we settled into our roles as parents and the new turned into the normal, we were able to find common ground on most issues, and compromise on the things we couldn’t agree on 100 percent. Now I think we make a pretty good team, but it’s a process that always takes work.
Here’s what I’ve learned, and what you can do if you and your partner have clashing parenting styles:
There is more than one way to raise a child. “Just because something isn’t your way doesn’t mean it isn’t a good enough way,” says Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. “Be flexible where you can.”
Modern parenting has bombarded us with all sorts of parenting philosophies to choose from: free-range, helicopter, attachment, tiger, panda, slow, RIE. Sometimes, identifying so strongly with these labels can make it more difficult to compromise. I was heavily into attachment parenting with my oldest son and if my husband did anything that didn’t fit that model, I freaked out on him. Conversely, he felt my approach was way over-the-top and exhausting for both of us. This caused lots of problems until I finally realized I didn’t need to follow the attachment parenting approach to a T. I had to give up a little bit of control and trust that we both were doing the best we could.
Know That Different Parenting Styles Can Actually Benefit a Kid
Sometimes, when parents disagree on different aspects of the job, it’s no big deal and can actually be beneficial. “When parents have different parenting styles, for the most part, that’s no problem,” Pearlman says. “As long as they agree on a few non-negotiable rules and the consequences, it can work just fine. One can be strict and the other carefree. One can be silly and the other serious. It can be great to have that kind of diversity in the household.”
However, Pearlman says that differences of opinion widen when things get heated. “The problem arises when parents don’t back each other up or they disagree strongly on the rules in the house,” she explains. “If one parent is trying to enforce something and the other overturns it or ignores the consequences, it is problematic. When parents are not on the same page, kids learn to work the system. They pit one parent against the other for their own benefit.”
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Look at the Big Values First
Answering the questions in this parenting style assessment from the University of Minnesota may help you and your partner determine what you each feel is most important. By knowing what the other parent values, it will be easier to find a middle ground.
When you are not in the heat of an argument, Pearlman suggests talking about the rules you care about most. Strict bedtimes might be hugely important for one parent, while table manners could be a non-negotiable for the other. It can be helpful to open up about your own parents and what they did or didn’t do in raising you that you’d like to either mimic or avoid. Exploring the evolution of your parenting style can be helpful in determining what you are willing to compromise on and what is a sticking point.
Then Try to Find Middle Ground
Know that differences of opinion are especially common when it comes to “controversial” parenting issues like nursing or co-sleeping. Writer Lauren Wellbank told me that breastfeeding was a hot-button issue in her family. “My husband kept asking me when I planned to stop nursing,” she says. “My first goal was six months and then when I hit that, it was a year. As it got closer and closer to my daughter’s first birthday my husband kept asking me when I was going to stop. I kept explaining to him that I wasn’t going to just wake up the day after her birthday and be like, ‘Okay, kid, you’re done!’”
Wellbank and her husband had many conversations about the topic to figure out what was really bothering him. It turns out, he didn’t know anyone else who had breastfed their child for more than a year, so he didn’t know what it would look like, and he was afraid it would be weird. After learning more about extended breastfeeding, and seeing that it was something Wellbank wanted to do, he eased up on the idea. After she nursed their daughter until she was almost two, he started calling her a “boob advocate” out of endearment.
Find places where each partner can ease up to accommodate the other’s wishes. Are you a stickler for your kids saying “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am,” but your partner thinks those are antiquated manners? Maybe decide that “please” and “thank you” will do. Does your partner think kids should have a list of weekend chores, but you think they need more play in their lives? Perhaps you can limit the major chores to Sunday afternoons. Making small concessions now will make compromising on the big things easier.
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Seek the Help of an Unbiased Guide
When there are areas that are important to both of you but you disagree on how to handle them, get an outside teacher, counselor or even book to help mediate a compromise. By engaging an objective party to help you work through your parenting differences, biases and preconceived notions about certain issues can be bypassed. A family therapist or other mediator can facilitate a discussion about why things are important to each parent, and how to approach problems as a team.