Navigating Different Parenting Styles – July 2016

Q: My husband and I share the same values and goals but we parent differently and I’ve noticed when we are both with the kids they act up more. I get extremely stressed out – partly because he gets annoyed easily at regular kid stuff (being loud), and partly because he is less vigilant about safety than I am (holding hands in parking lots). I think they’re acting up because the stress level is higher. He loses his patience quickly and gets a little harsh (although it seems that everyone but me moves on quickly; I become a complete stress case). He thinks they’re acting up because I’m not firm enough with them. I think I know what works with the kids because I’ve spent more time with them and read a lot of parenting books, but I don’t know how to get my knowledge across to my husband. I’m thinking of calling a team-style family meeting to get at common goals and agreements, and then we can all help each other stay in check in a positive way. Any thoughts on how to go about this?
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A: Great question, because who among us with a parenting partner hasn’t been chafed by the other parent’s style at times (if not often)? It’s inevitable, and it’s why a fire department has one fire chief, a restaurant has one head chef, and a gorilla troop has one alpha. It’s just simpler if one person (or gorilla) is calling the shots.

It sounds as though when the family is all together the stress is increased for a couple of reasons: your husband’s lack of patience with regular kid stuff and your stress about his reaction. And then, since our children feed off our energy, perhaps the kids bring their own stress into the mix. Plus by this time these dynamics are probably predictable so there’s anticipatory stress which can jump start the whole thing. The trick is to decrease the stress in every way possible.

The idea you suggested to decrease stress is a good one – bring the whole family in on it, name the problem, brainstorm solutions, and get some quality control in there. But first, the family leaders need to get on the same page. Imagine how awkward it would be if the ‘Presidents of the United Family’ gave the State of the Union address only to end up contradicting each other and arguing about how to handle things? Chaos and mutiny would ensue.

It sounds like you and your husband are on the same page about some of the most important things: values, goals, and the fact that the current method isn’t working the way you want it to. That’s a great start. Commit to first having conversations (because this could be a process, not a quick fix) without the kids where you two explore what you want it to look like when you’re all together. If you find that you’re not on the same page about something, talk about not only what you want but why you want it. For example, one of you might want to intervene on kid arguments because tantrums are annoying and everyone gets in a bad mood, and the other person might want the kids to be able to argue with each other so they can figure out how to compromise and problem-solve on their own. It’s not unusual to find that one parent tends to work towards resolution of the immediate problem (e.g., a tantrum) while the other parent tends to work towards a more permanent long-term solution of a bigger issue (e.g., being entitled – normal for little ones but it does not age well). If this is the case, expect to have ongoing discussions since this could indicate a difference in parenting philosophy. But even in these cases, both parents usually want the same outcome for their child (e.g., to become an adult who can manage their emotions, listen, compromise, problem-solve, and work on a team). They just have different ideas on when and how to start working on it.

Once you’ve agreed on the goals, talk about ideas on how to get there. Important: Don’t get sidetracked with blame and defensiveness; keep it factual about what’s worked and what hasn’t, remembering that you’re on the same team here and everyone wants to do what works. Don’t get hooked on “my idea” – your partner might have a surprisingly good one that you won’t notice if you go into this with a closed mind. Once both of you are clear on what the expectations are for the kids and parents, take it public. Invite the kids to share their experience of the double-parenting situation with you. Maybe they feel more stress and don’t like it. Maybe they love the pandemonium because it’s meeting a need they could get met in a different way. After fully listening, explain why it’s not working for you and your husband (and the kids), share what you’ve mapped out, and invite them to add any ideas they might have to improve things. Then, clearly define a manageable, reasonable set of expectations (there’s room for adding, adjusting and refining later) and explain what will happen if they do cooperate and if they don’t. Positive incentives (especially concrete ones for younger kids, and don’t underestimate the power of praise!) can do wonders for getting buy-in and starting new habits. Avoid immediate consequences for not cooperating – new habits can be hard to start, plus they might be struggling with the same anticipatory stress you have (read here about what to do before setting consequences, and read here about how to use natural and logical consequences). Consider making a visual reminder for the expectations (list of words for kids who can read, pictures for those who can’t) and get them involved in making it – coming up with the words, decorating the poster, etc.

Remember, this is all part of the process of raising kids so don’t expect a quick change. Tell them you’ll meet again in a month (sooner for the two parents) to applaud improvements and make adjustments to what isn’t yet working. Keep it a team feel, like you said, but remember that strong teams have solid leaders so if you have a little revolutionist on your hands, remember you’re the Presidents.

And bring snacks – meetings are always better with snacks.