What to do if you and Your Co-parent Disagree about Parenting
Paul, the father of two teenage sons, was talking about an argument he had had recently with his wife.
“It all started over Matt’s grades,” Paul said, referring to his 17-year-old son. “We just learned that he has failed to turn in several homework assignments and I was mad about it.”
The argument with his wife, he said, began after Paul confronted Matt and expressed his concern about whether Matt would pass his classes and be able to go to college in the fall. Paul’s wife thought he was too angry and insulting in expressing himself to Matt.
When it was suggested that often parents approach these kinds of problems differently, Paul readily agreed.
“You’ve got that right,” Paul said. “I admit I approach things like I’m driving a bulldozer. I go right after the problem. My wife is more laid back about things that make me crazy. I just don’t think you should ignore problems with kids.”
Paul is the type of parent who I characterize as an active intervener. That is, he believes every problem or concern needs to be addressed and dealt with openly and immediately. His wife is more easy-going. She believes that sometimes the best approach is to let children work out their own problems.
There’s no question that married couples frequently have different parenting styles. While couples when dating may discuss whether they will have children, how many children they would like, or their hopes or dreams for their children, rarely do they discuss their parenting philosophies or styles. I suspect that even if they tried to talk about how they would individually approach discipline problems, they may not even know how they would handle things or how they would describe their styles. Parenting styles tend to evolve as your children grow. Parenting approaches, too, are related to a number of factors, including your personality, your temperament, and how you were raised as a child. There has been considerable research over the past several decades on parenting styles and which ones are more likely to produce healthy and well-developed children. Yet, different children respond differently to parental styles and children often seem to become well adjusted despite the way they were raised.
The more critical concern, perhaps, is how you and your spouse or you and your co-parent handle your differences. Granted that you can’t always view child problems in the same way or that you will always be on the same page in terms of how you handle discipline issues, what happens when you don’t agree? Do your disagreements result in intense family conflict? Do they lead to your child playing you against each other? Or have you learned to work with each other despite your differences?
There are several things that you can do as co-parents to minimize the negative effects of parenting disagreements.
● It is important to be supportive of each other in front of your children. You can disagree privately or even have an argument at another place and time, but in front of your child you should present a united front.
● You can reduce the chances of your child playing you against each other by avoiding conflict in front of your child. Children may take sides with one of you if the fight is in their presence, but they will be trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage.
● Inter-parental conflict is ultimately harmful to your child. It causes anxiety, depression, interferes with both physical and psychological development, and may affect their school performance. A good rule of thumb is to avoid fighting as long as your child is within 500 feet of your argument.
● While some arguments in front of your child are inevitable, any disagreements that you have in front of him or her, should not be about how to discipline or guide them. And if a conflict does take place in your child’s presence, make sure that you make it a productive conflict by resolving it so that you are modeling conflict resolution skills for your child.
● Finally, keep your differing parenting styles in perspective for yourself and for your child. Having disagreements over parenting approaches doesn’t mean you don’t love each other, nor do they mean that either one of you is always right or always wrong. Differences of opinions and diverse parenting philosophies just mean that sometimes you see things differently; that you are two individuals with sometimes very different ideas about dealing with your child.