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Parents Should Work Together

Find compromises and work with your partner for the benefit of your child.

Key points

  • Children get confused when their parents have different approaches and are likelier to play one parent against the other.
  • The place to begin is to establish what the facts are.
  • Parents should come together on fundamental principles and agreements about actions.
Ann Danilina/Unsplash
Source: Ann Danilina/Unsplash

Note: This is adapted from Mother Nurture, a book written for mothers—focusing on typical parenting situations and gender differences that are experienced by many, though not all, mothers and fathers and by parents in same-sex relationships. Parenting is a complex subject, plus it intertwines with larger issues of gender roles and the long history of mistreatment of women; obviously, society should do a better job of supporting families in general and mothers and fathers in particular, but, meanwhile, there are things they can do for themselves; alas, there is no room for these complexities in these brief JOTs; for my discussion of them, please see Mother Nurture.

It's hard to get on the same page since parents often have different values in child rearing and issues of who gets to be right or in charge muddy the water. Yet, children get confused when their parents have different approaches and are more likely to play one parent against the other: But Dad said I could! And it is disheartening when a partner approaches one of the most important undertakings in life in a way that seems wrongheaded or cavalier.

Minor differences in parenting style are all right. Besides helping children prepare for a variety of teachers and (eventually) bosses, complementary approaches can build on each other, like Mom is more of a tender owie-kisser and Dad an exuberant horsie-back-ride-giver, so kids get the best of both worlds. But major differences in parenting values or actions are a problem.

Take the first steps.

While it may seem unfair for one partner to make the first move, helping to evoke positive behavior can reduce his/her reasons for being irked. And there will be a better result by taking steps together. Here's a buffet of options focused on the common situations of partners whose parenting styles differ.

  • Have confidence in the other parent's fundamental parenting abilities.
  • Use encouragement.
  • Offer acknowledgment.
  • Create space for learning.
  • Try not intervening in situations and see what happens instead (unless something truly abusive is occurring).
  • Understand the whole picture before jumping in.
  • Don't micromanage.
  • Get a reality check on the actual seriousness of the differences by being clear about the facts.
  • Be respectful. When offering suggestions, be respectful and specific.
  • Try to be a model of the reactions that are expected in return.

Take steps together.

  • Talk about values.
  • Be supportive of each other.
  • Try not to polarize roles so that one parent is the disciplinarian while the other gets to be more nurturing or playful.
  • Use a tie-breaker.

Establish clear facts.

The place to begin is to establish what the facts are. Agreements may already be in place about how the load is shared, but, commonly, one partner feels that he or she is doing more than the other partner is aware of, which sparks recurring quarrels.

Each partner could simply list his or her part with the kids or household that day. If even that would be overwhelming, make a list for an hour or for a specific part of the day, such as the morning or evening.

At night, compare notes, and see if agreements can be made about the basic facts of that day without nitpicking whether something took five minutes or 10. At the end of the period, try to agree on what the facts are, plus or minus 10 percent.

Establish clear principles.

Even with clear facts, parents can disagree about what they mean. Cultural factors influence our expectations about the proper sharing of roles after children arrive.

In gentle ways, you can support your partner's involvement by shining light on what a difference it makes to your children.

Establish clear agreements.

Once you come together on basic principles, agreements about actions are pretty straightforward, especially when you use the negotiation skills you've already learned. Here are some practical solutions that have helped many families, including those in which the parents are already sharing the load fairly, and the real issue is only how to work together even better:

  • Coordinate with each other.
  • Keep things in perspective.
  • Try to be flexible and creative for the greater good.
  • Look for ways for both parents to be involved with the children.
  • Work out housework issues.
  • Tackle high-stress situations together.
  • Balance the total stress load more or less evenly.
  • Address the impact of work on your family.
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