How couples with differing parenting styles can make it work

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“Don’t email the teacher yet,” my husband said.

Our 8 year old was having trouble at recess and I was just about ready to disguise myself as a student and sneak onto the playground to help. Right in the middle of my explanation about how a hands-on approach was the best idea ever, my husband jumped in and said why our child needed space to figure this one out on his own.

We were standing 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 did not move closer to the close-knit team that our son needed. In fact, I felt a disconnect growing.

Do you ever feel like you’re aging alone when you’re aging with your partner? Katie Smith, a licensed clinical and child psychologist, says it’s not unusual to have opposing views on parenting. “No two people think through situations in exactly the same way,” says Smith. The problem is when the conflict is more about who is wrong and who is right, and not the parenting issue at hand, says Smith.

While Smith is right, I’m not always ready to admit I’m wrong when I’m getting older with my partner—and neither is he. So, we get stuck and cling to the belief that our plan is the only one that will cure the situation. According to psychologist Supatra Tovar, this is the exact mindset that can lead parents to an even greater separation. “This conflict can become so bad that if communication is not present, and differences are not checked, it can lead to separation or divorce,” says Tovar.

Why are we so attached to our parenting methods, especially when we can agree on other important issues? Tovar explains these styles develop for many reasons, and some are deeply ingrained in us over time. “It comes down to cultural factors, what your parents’ parenting styles were, and then society’s expectations,” she says.

It is normal for parents to disagree. But there are ways to use 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 of a 9-year-old son. “It’s just something we know.” She describes her method as an “empathetic explainer” while her husband moves to the stricter side.

They can disagree on all kinds of things, like navigating family dynamics or dealing with after-school activities. It’s not unusual, says Tovar: Parents often take alternative views on issues including how and when to discipline, division of labor, and even smaller things like the right way to pack the diaper bag.

Although different points of view 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,” says Quill.

This agreement keeps the two connected, and it’s a system Tovar encourages with her clients. “I stress it is of the utmost importance to become a ‘united parenting front,'” says Tovar.

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 aged 8 and 23 months, scores. Between Tooman’s relaxed style and her husband’s more authoritative approach, the couple are discussing how to set healthy limits for their children. She says it is difficult to negotiate two points of view, but when they focus on finding a balance between their differences, communication improves. “After we talked, I feel better,” says Tooman.

“Most people, when they disagree, have a particular communication style,” says Tovar. “Often it’s dysfunctional, and that’s the main reason arguments arise—because each person is trying to get their point across.”

Know when to take a break – and then listen

When defense mounts, it’s time to call a timeout. Both Tooman and Quill said they take time away from escalating decisions when necessary.

“Parents often feel that a solution must be reached immediately, but when emotions are high, it is not the best time to make decisions,” says Smith, the child psychologist. When you’re ready to re-enter the conversation, Tovar suggests taking turns listening without judgment. Listening objectively can bring validation that goes a long way toward forging a solution and reducing those feelings of frustration and resentment.

Parenting differences have benefits when both parties recognize the value, so keeping in mind that there is no one correct way to parent can take away the pressure to choose one style over another. Try to see 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,” says Smith. The relaxed parent may seem to be helping their more nervous child with homework pressure. Playing to your parenting strengths can be helpful for your children.

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, look for sore spots and work through them together. “As we go along, we see where the sore spots are in our relationship and we work through them,” says Quill.

Back in our kitchen, I take a breath and think about this great truth: My husband wants the best for our child, and so do I. This is when I focus on the love that binds us and let go of the idea that there is a one-style-fits-all formula for parenting. Now we can move forward in our conversation because there is room 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 Man.” Find her on Twitter @tonilynh.

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