“Don’t email the teacher yet," my husband said.
We stood on opposite sides of our kitchen island, but I felt like we were on opposite sides of the world. As we discussed the situation, we weren’t moving any closer to being the tightknit team our son needed. In fact, I felt a disconnect growing.
Ever feel like you’re parenting alone when parenting with your partner? Katie Smith, a licensed clinical and child psychologist, says it’s not uncommon to have opposite outlooks when parenting. “No two people think through situations in the exact same way,” Smith says. The problem is when the conflict becomes more about who’s wrong and who’s right, and not the parenting issue at hand, Smith says.
While Smith is right, I’m not always ready to admit I’m wrong when parenting with my partner — and neither is he. So, we get stuck holding onto the belief that our plan is the only one that will heal the situation. According to psychologist Supatra Tovar, this is the exact mind-set that can lead parents to an even greater divide. “This conflict can become so severe, if communication is not present, and differences go unchecked, it can lead to separation or divorce,” Tovar says.
Why are we so attached to our parenting methods, especially when we can agree on other important issues? Tovar explains these styles evolve for many reasons, and some are deeply ingrained in us over time. “It comes down to cultural factors, what were your parents’ parenting styles, and then society’s expectations,” she says.
It’s normal for parents to disagree. But there are ways to make use of those differences as a team instead of letting them drive you apart.
Make your differences work for you
“My husband and I have different parenting styles," says Erin Quill, the mother to a 9-year-old son. "It’s just a thing we know.” She describes her method as an “empathetic explainer” while her husband skews to the stricter side.
They can disagree about all sorts of things, such as navigating family dynamics or dealing with after-school activities. That’s not unusual, Tovar says: Parents often take alternate views on issues including how and when to discipline, divisions of labor, and even smaller stuff like the proper way to pack the diaper bag.
While differing viewpoints can be frustrating, Quill says they don’t stop her and her husband from making decisions about their son’s life. To work together constructively, they set a boundary. “We have a rule that we don’t undermine each other’s parenting,” Quill says.
This agreement keeps the two connected, and it’s a system Tovar encourages in her clients. “I stress it is of the utmost importance to become a ‘united parenting front,’” Tovar says.
Becoming a parenting team shifts your attention to the common goal of raising emotionally resilient children. This is where Shawna Tooman, the mother of two girls ages 8 and 23 months, is scoring points. Between Tooman’s laid-back style and her husband’s more authoritative approach, the couple is in discussion about how to set healthy limits for their kids. She says it’s hard negotiating two viewpoints, but when they focus on finding a balance between their differences, communication improves. “After we talk, I feel better,” Tooman says.
“Most people, when they have a disagreement, have a particular communication style,” Tovar says. “Oftentimes it’s dysfunctional, and that’s the main reason arguments come up — because each person is trying to get their point across.”
Know when to take a break — and then listen
When defenses rise, it’s time to call a timeout. Both Tooman and Quill said they take time away from escalating decisions when needed.
“Parents often feel a solution has to be reached immediately, but when emotions are high, that’s not the best time to make decisions,” says Smith, the child psychologist. When you’re ready to reenter the conversation, Tovar suggests taking turns listening without judgment. Listening objectively can bring validation which goes a long way toward forging a solution and lessens those feelings of frustration and resentment.
Parenting differences have benefits when both parties recognize the value, so keeping in mind that there’s no one correct way to parent can take the pressure off choosing one style over another. Try seeing your partner’s different parenting style as an asset, not a weakness.
“Parents can define different responsibilities based on their strengths according to what their child needs,” Smith says. This can look like the laid-back parent helping their more nervous child with homework pressures. Playing to your parenting strengths can be helpful for your kids.
Quill and Tooman agree that working with two parenting styles has its advantages: Parenting conversations are now an opportunity to check in as a couple, checking for sore spots and working through them together. “As we go along, we see where the sore spots are in our relationship and we work through them,” Quill says.
Back in our kitchen, I take a breath and think about this big truth: My husband wants the best for our kid, and so do I. That’s when I focus on the love that binds us and let go of the idea there’s a one-style-fits-all formula for parenting. Now, we can move forward in our conversation because there’s space for us to speak without pushing to be heard.
Tonilyn Hornung is a writer and the author of the humorous advice book “How to Raise a Husband.” Find her on Twitter @tonilynh.