Parenting Together with Less Conflict
It’s nearly impossible to see eye-to-eye with our parenting partners all the time. Even if you have fundamentally similar ideas about how to raise children, the day-to-day stress of parenting can bring out some very divergent approaches to coping and discipline. Lisa Schab offers some serious nuggets of wisdom about how to lessen parenting conflict and stick together for our kids. — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC
An interview with Lisa Schab L.C.S.W. by Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC
Is it possible to have a successful balance in the responsibilities of parenting between two partners?
Differences in parenting and discipline styles are more common than not. Even when two parents have basically the same style, they may disagree from situation to situation, on the priority of the challenge, how to enforce their mutual ideas or any number of other things. Parents are individual human beings first and just as they will have disagreements in other areas of their marriage, they will have disagreements in how to raise their children.
Whether or not parents can come to agreement and work cohesively with different parenting styles depends greatly on how much energy they are willing to put into working at cooperation instead of conflict and how much insight and objectivity they can bring to the challenge.
Differences in parenting are in great part due to the fact that our parenting styles derive initially and most deeply from our own childhood experiences. And childhood experiences are wrought with deep emotional memory. As children, our parents are able to wound us more deeply than anyone else, simply because of the role they play in our lives: they are our first source of love and identity; we are dependent on them for our very survival; they are the most important and therefore most powerful people in our lives. The very best parents in the world will still raise children who have some measure of wounds from their childhood and this will influence the way they raise their own children. Likewise, the deep love we get from our parents influences the behaviors and traditions that we want to repeat with our own children. The ability to recognize and explore the ways their childhood is connected to their own parenting ideals – and each partner’s ability to understand and empathize with the other’s childhood experience – will greatly help or hinder a couple’s ability to parent well together.
When it comes to parenting discipline styles, how can parents be sure not to undermine one another?
Decide ahead of time that you will never undermine one another in front of the children, no matter how strongly you disagree. This behavior negatively affects all members of the family. Children – especially under 6 years old – become confused and frightened, parents become hurt and angry. Children also learn to manipulate their parents when they discover the parents don’t agree on discipline.
After the fact, you need to talk about the situation and work out your differences. In general, if one parent walks into a situation that the other parent is handling, they should let the parent who started the discipline finish it. Then, share your thoughts and feelings later, in private.
Presenting a united front in front of your children – especially younger children – is important to their security and stability.
*One exception to this policy is in the case of any kind of abuse. If the child is in danger of being hurt, the observing parent should take action to protect them.
What about parenting styles that clash?
There are three main styles of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. Some researchers include a fourth: uninvolved. Their descriptions are as follows:
Authoritarian Parenting. (demanding and non-responsive) This style is characterized by strict rules and strict enforcement of rules with consequences or punishment. The rules are set by the parents and there is not much dialogue about why or how the rules are determined. Likewise, there is not much attempt at understanding a child’s misbehavior, or their thoughts or feelings about the behavioral situations.
Example: Parents tell their 5 year old child that their bedroom will be checked every Saturday morning. If clothes and toys are not put away, beds made, and the room vacuumed and dusted, the children will not be allowed to watch TV or play with friends that day. No exceptions.
Authoritative Parenting. (demanding and responsive) Like authoritarian, authoritative parents set family and house rules and expect them to be enforced. However, authoritative parents also make it a point to listen to and dialogue with their children about the rules, the consequences, and the reasons behind thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Example: Parents tell their 5 year old child that, as adults, they value cleanliness and helping others and they would like this value to be carried out in their home. One of the ways they want their child to learn these values is to have increasing responsibility for keeping their room clean. They tell the child that every Saturday morning it will be time for room cleaning. The child will be expected to put away their clothes and toys and can choose to help the parents with either dusting or vacuuming. When the room is clean, they can play. They ask their child for her ideas about this, and listen to her thoughts and feelings. They consider her opinions but they set the final rule.
Permissive Parenting. (non-demanding and responsive) Permissive parents are very lenient and place a low level of restriction on their children. They are comfortable with few rules and allow their children to determine much of their own behaviors. They tend to be nurturing and communicative, but may be described as taking the role of a friend versus a parent.
Example: Every Saturday morning the parents clean up the child’s room for them. Once in a while they ask the child to help.
Uninvolved Parenting. (non-demanding and non-responsive) Uninvolved parents have few, if any, restrictions on their children, and may have little communication with them as well. These parents take a very detached stance in the raising of their children.
Example: The parents don’t pay much attention to the child’s room. Once in a while they complain that it looks awful.
It is important to note that usually no parent falls into only one category; we are often a mix or may move from one style to the other depending on the situation.
Because the Authoritative Parenting style shows the greatest benefit to children, and tends to raise the most mature and emotionally healthy children, this style can be set as the goal for all parents to reach toward.
Any tips to help parents support each other when their approaches to parenting vary widely?
I would encourage parents to try to do as much of the following as possible:
UNDERSTAND THE PAST
Have each parent ask themselves the following questions, write out or think about their answers, and then share them calmly and objectively with their co-parent:
- Describe your childhood experience when you were the age your child is now (if you can’t remember this specific age, just describe memories that arise from any age).
- Describe what you liked best about what your parents did.
- Describe what you liked the least and never want to repeat.
- Describe what you are neutral about.
- Describe how you see your own childhood feelings playing out in your daily interactions with your young child.
- Describe how your parents fit into any of the main parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or uninvolved.
- Describe how your parents’ style affected you both positively and negatively, as a child and an adult.
Share this information with your spouse, in an informative and neutral manner – tell your story for the purpose of information gathering – not for blaming, finding fault, or defining right or wrong. Talk together about how your different childhood experiences affect you today. Make a list of each of your strengths as parents that derived from this upbringing. Talk – with empathy and understanding – about the areas you each need to work harder to be healthier parents.
PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
Working together to set goals for the future of your child – the “end result” of your parenting – can help you to see your areas of commonality, not just conflict. Set these up as your guiding star – that you can always come back to as a reminder that you both have your child’s best interest at heart. This gives you a better, peaceful place to focus when you find yourselves seeing red about the current parenting situation.
Together with your spouse, discuss and record answers to the following that you both agree on:
- What values do you both want to instill in your child?
- What kind of a person do you both hope they will become?
- What kinds of things would you both like them to accomplish?
- What character traits would you both like to see them develop?
- What do you both hope for them when they are 18 and leaving home?
- What kind of a relationship would you like to have with them when they are preschool, grade school, middle school, high school, young adults, young parents themselves, middle age?
WORK AS A TEAM IN THE PRESENT
Read and discuss the following guidelines and talk about which ones may be helpful to you, which you agree or disagree with, which you think you already do well, and which you each need to work on. Again, use this discussion as information gathering and support, not blaming or judging.
- Decide that whenever possible you will discuss parenting challenges when you are both calm and relaxed. No one can have a productive discussion when they are at a point of high emotion.
- Decide to put the problem “outside of yourselves” – to see it as a challenge that you both want to address, not as something “wrong” with one or the other of you.
- Agree to work as a team when dealing with parenting challenges. Remember that your common goal is to raise a healthy child, and try to identify and use the strengths that each of you possess to reach that goal.
- Express yourself and your opinions through a cooperative, not attacking, stance. When one parent feels attacked, their defenses will go up and they will want to attack back. The cycle escalates and nothing is accomplished.
- Use the Authoritative parenting style as your model rather than one or the other of your ideas. This helps to depersonalize issues and prevents one parent telling the other their personal style is right or wrong.
- Accept your mistakes. Unfortunately we don’t get “practice kids.” You will both make mistakes. The goal is not to eliminate them completely because that is impossible. The goal is to do your best and keep moving forward.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Try to talk about possible areas of conflict before they arise. Discuss your different opinions and determine where you can compromise. Revisit conflicts when the situation is passed and you are calm. Think about how you could handle things differently next time.
- Keep your heavy parenting conflicts away from your kids and separate from your relationships with them. Kids feel more secure when parents display a united front, and you are less likely to be manipulated. However, most children can handle minor disagreements between parents and these can be great times to model healthy conflict resolution.
- Get outside help if you just can’t accomplish these goals by yourselves, or if you simply want to be the best parents possible. Counseling, parenting classes and books, and support groups can all be helpful. This step does NOT mean you are failing, it means you are mature and open to growing.
Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W. is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice in the greater Chicago area. She is the author of 14 self-books and workbooks for kids, teens, and adults, including: Cool, Calm, & Confident; The Anger Solution Workbook; Stop, Relax, & Think; The You & Me Workbook; and The Coping Skills Workbook. Lisa was a preschool teacher for six years before becoming a psychotherapist.
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