How Couples Can Resolve Differences in Parenting Styles

A common source of conflict in couples is how to best raise children together. Parenting is a stressful endeavor and often brings out deep-rooted differences in how each person believes their children should be raised. One person might be more authoritarian and strict whereas the other is more egalitarian and permissive, or one person might have more conservative values that they want to instill in their children whereas the other is more liberal and free-spirited and takes a hands-off approach. So how do couples best navigate this?

Our preference for a particular parenting style is often deeply rooted in how we were raised ourselves. We might either be trying to rebel against our own upbringing by not wanting to make the same mistakes our parents made with us, or we might be wanting to carry forward the same good values we believe our own parents instilled in us. In this sense, our parenting style is often a window into some of our deepest beliefs and principles as human beings. This is of course both what makes changing these beliefs so difficult, and what presents an opportunity to get to know ourselves and our partner more intimately and deeply in and through the shared activity of raising a child together.

Parenting Differences Can Either Make You or Break You:

Differences in parenting can both be what breaks a couple or what helps a couple parent even more strongly together.

Parenting breaks a couple when the couple engages in a power struggle around different parenting issues and simply tries to get it their own way. If each parent parents according to their own style regardless of their partner’s preferences, not only will the child get confused, but each partner will also end up sabotaging each other and feeling at odds.

On the other hand, differences in parenting styles can be an opportunity to get to know more about the underlying experiences and values that have helped shape each person into who they are. Instead of being at loggerheads about specific parenting situations where these values are reflected, these situations can instead become opportunities to understand more about where these values come from. 

By shifting conversations from a conversation about what is right or wrong, and focusing instead on discovering the basis for each person’s beliefs, couples can gain a deeper understanding of who they each are as people, and this can help strengthen the relationship.

For example, rather than getting stuck on a conversation about whether you should be more lenient or more strict in setting curfews for a teenager, it could be more beneficial to get at the deeper concern each partner has that they are trying to solve through their way of parenting. Did one partner feel they missed out in life because of their own strict parents? And did the other receive a message from their parents that the world is not a safe place? If so, could the conversation shift towards discussing the values of having fun and easing anxieties about the world in a way that allows both values to be considered and expressed in and through a joint parenting strategy?

How to Discuss Parenting Differences:

How do you get started with such a deeper conversation about parenting?

Renowned couples therapist and couples researcher John Gottman has devised a set of questions that he encourages couples to pose whenever they want to get beyond a surface level understanding of a conflict. 

If we adapt these to the question of parenting, we can state these as follows: 

  1. Do you have any core beliefs, ethics or values that are part of your position on this particular parenting issue?
  2. Is there a story behind these strong feelings about a particular parenting issue? Do they relate to your background or childhood history in some way?
  3. Tell me why parenting this particular way is so important to you?
  4. Is there a deeper purpose or goal in wanting to parent this way for you?
  5. Is there a fear or disaster scenario you worry about if we don’t parent in this particular way?

The reason why these questions can help to get couples out of a gridlock of opinions is that they uncover some of the more human fears, concerns, and hopes that we can all relate to in some way.

We may not have the same fears, but we can easily relate to having fears. We may not have the same childhood stories and experiences but we have all been children and have all had negative as well as positive experiences that have left a mark on us and shaped us in some way.

> For a summary of the original Dreams within Conflicts Gottman Exercise, click here

The Importance of Becoming a Parenting Team:

By making parenting a window into understanding each others nature and core childhood experiences we can create more common ground and can more easily discuss ways to honor each others’ fears, wishes and values. Now instead of being at war over differences in opinion about appropriate bedtimes, dinnertime manners, or boundaries for what is considered acceptable behavior, we can have a discussion about how best to implement our different values in a way that embraces both.

If structure is important to one person because it made them feel safe in an otherwise chaotic home, but is restrictive to the other person because they weren’t allow to play and “be a kid” when growing up, the compromise is not to provide structure when one person is around, and to ignore it when the other person is in charge. Instead it is to discuss ways to raise a child who both feels safe and able to play. Perhaps instituting a routine can be agreed on, while still making sure the child has freedom to play and be a kid during certain unstructured times. 

And perhaps most importantly, instead of getting into disagreements about the right way to parent, both parents can become partners who are on the same team.

Where values clash, compromises can be made, such that both values can get expressed in some way. This way each parenting style can help balance out the excesses of the other and lead to a more well-rounded overall approach to parenting that brings together the best from both worlds.

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