One area that couples can struggle with is agreeing how to raise the kids. It is probably the biggest ‘project’ you will undertake as a couple and, given its importance, it makes for a much smoother life for you and for your children if you can agree on the fundamentals.
Mona and I met and came together in part because we were pretty much aligned on basic values and ways of living. So our parenting values are also very much aligned. Add to this the fact that Mona especially (and me to a lesser extent) has systemically educated herself about parenting and developed a very clear approach that’s supported by the latest thinking on parenting strategies.
This is not the case for everyone.
We All Want the Same Things
I believe anyone who holds their role as parent with any level of seriousness (and I accept this is not a given) wants more or less the same things for their kids. We all want our children to grow up happy, fulfilled, self-confident, independent, sociable, healthy and valuable members of society. I guess you have your own variations though I would be surprised if you have completely different wishes for your kids.
How you help them get there, on the other hand, is where the differences are most likely to occur. In other words, you have similar goals for your kids but widely different ways to get there.
Why Parenting Approaches Vary
My ideas about parenting have radically transformed over the 28 years since I first became a father. This is a mixture of maturity, experience, getting more educated about parenting and assessing my belief systems. If I, as an individual, have changed so much then it is not at all surprising that two different people will also vary in their parenting styles.
My first attempts at parenting, as for most of us I guess, mainly drew on my own upbringing. I copied my own parents’ styles and approaches without ever pausing to challenge them. As I grew into the role, I started bringing my own values and ideas. Later I started to learn by reading and attending workshops.
In some important aspects my position has taken a 180 degree turn on things I took for granted at the start of my parenting journey. One example is that of smacking which I did use a few times with my first child but have now fully rejected. In fact, for many years I have not used punishment (or rewards) in ANY form with my kids.
When your parenting styles are in conflict with your partner’s I suggest you look at it as something dynamic and temporary that can just as easily change as both of you mature, grow and learn.
How to Handle Differences in Parenting Styles?
It’s easy to say ‘just talk about it’ but talking without clarity and positive intention is unlikely to get anywhere.
I would like to offer one possible way to tackle this topic. Prepare together a Parenting Manifesto which outlines your agreed approach to the key areas of raising children. Here is a 7 step approach:
Step 1: Identify the important areas of parenting
The first step is to come up with a list of areas that are important to you as parents. These might be areas where you already know you disagree but should also include those where you are in harmony with each other and those that have not yet appeared, perhaps due to your child’s age.
Here are some areas where parents have different approaches.
- Breast feeding – whether to start and when to stop
- Boundary setting
- How to enforcing boundaries
- Promoting behaviours you value
- Use of rewards and use of punishments
- Choices about kindergarten and school
- Participating in chores around the home
- Screen time
- Religious education
You could each prepare a list and then combine your individual lists into one for the couple.
Step 2: Write your individual Manifesto
Prepare your individual ‘Parenting Manifesto’ which briefly outlines your approach for each of the areas you identified in the first step. It is up to you how you prepare it though writing it seems the obvious choice.
As an example, my manifesto would include:
“Rewards and Punishments
I want my children to develop their intrinsic motivation so I never knowingly use rewards or punishment of any kind. I talk with my children and help them see natural consequences of their choices and action. I encourage them through talk and action to take responsibility for these consequences.”
Step 3: Share and Dialogue
Once you both have your individual manifestos, share them and identify where you agree and where you disagree. I highly recommend spending time in dialogue about them. The purpose is not to defend your perspective but rather to discover where your partner is coming from. While you do this, hold an intention to build a joint approach.
You should also note the areas you do agree on as these give you a sense of togetherness and alignment on which to build. This sharing and dialogue will create a first combined manifesto and show you the remaining areas where you still hold differences.
The remaining steps, therefore, are aiming to bring your differences closer and closer together.
Step 4: Look for Underlying Needs
For the areas where you still disagree, find the underlying needs.
For example, one of you might want to co-sleep with your toddler to meet needs of closeness, warmth and ease while the other does not want to co-sleep to meet needs of intimacy and safety.
This doesn’t immediately resolve the different approaches but changes the focus to what is important at a deeper level. You are now aiming to find an approach to sleeping arrangements that meets all these needs.
Maybe you go bed together and as soon as your child is asleep you move him to his own bed. Or maybe you co-sleep on alternate days. Or maybe one only one of you sleeps with your child and you find other ways to get intimacy.
The point is that once we can see what is really important, then more options and possibilities become available. When the question is ‘do we co-sleep or not?’ then we have two options. If the question is ‘how do we get enough closeness, warmth, ease, intimacy and safety in our sleeping arrangements?’ then it shifts us into creative mode.
Step 5: Educate yourself
This step maybe should be number 1 so all your decisions are based on knowledge not ignorance. You could agree on potentially harmful approaches to parenting based on not understanding the consequences. So, although it is here as a problem-solving step, I highly encourage you to get as much education as possible about being parents and then revisit your manifesto.
Coming back to the current Manifesto – some of your differences might simply be because you are not equally knowledgeable about the topic.
Maybe one of you has read a great deal about the research on breast feeding while the other is going more on what seems ‘right’. Rather than making it an argument, why not bring the less knowledgeable party up to a similar level. This may bring your approaches together and as a minimum your discussions will at least be informed.
Step 6: Synthesise your approaches to one that works
You may still be left in some areas with differences. You need to find a way forward in those areas by developing an agreed approach. Try one way for a month and then the other way for a month and see which best fits? Maybe you need a compromise solution that is not ideal for either but you can at least both live with. Or maybe you need to accept you will handle the area differently … and this may be ok.
Step 7: Still unresolved differences?
if there still remain some areas where you just cannot agree and none of the compromise solutions are appropriate then you might want to seek professional counselling of some kind.