As we all know, just because people are rearing a child together does not mean they believe in the same parenting approach, or naturally tend to make similar decisions when talking with, playing with, or disciplining children. Parenting education specialists describe three basic styles of parenting:
Permissive parenting: this approach tends to be “laissez-faire”, go-along to get along, allowing a child to have a lot of control and power over how decisions are made. This approach is high on accommodation, and low on limit setting and reasonable expectations. At the extreme, this approach can lead to children feeling too powerful, entitled, spoiled, and challenged in being fair and generous when interacting with others.
Authoritarian parenting: this approach is what it sounds like – the parent sees him or herself as the authority, and believes that children should listen and behave “because I said so”. This approach is low on empathy and high on structure and discipline. Parents using this style can sometimes seem scary to their children, and this style can create resistant, secretive, and/or rebellious children.
Authoritative parenting: the label is confusing, because it sounds like “authoritarian” but this approach tends to be an effective balance between using empathy and compassion for children, with reasonable expectations and limit setting. Authoritative parents may enter into healthy debates with children in order to teach children to think critically and learn to express their opinions, but these parents, at the end of the day, do have expectations and rules, and elicit cooperation from children by helping them feel listened to – but not overly powerful. Children with authoritative parents are often mature, outspoken, and responsible.
Experts believe that Authoritative parenting tends to lead to the most emotionally healthy children. However if a parent tends toward the permissive, or tends toward the authoritarian, but is able to reset, to compromise, and to learn from the other parent, those styles may not have a negative impact on children.
So what happens if two people are rearing children together, but they do not have the same approach?
Well, if either parent is rigidly stuck in either a permissive, or an authoritarian way of looking at things when they are interacting with their children, this can lead to conflict between parents. Sometimes the conflict arises because one parent is uncertain about how best to approach parenting challenges, but they feel very uncomfortable and/ or judgmental about their co-parent’s style.
In other families, conflict arises because while one parent becomes more and more authoritarian, the other tries to compensate by being more and more permissive. It’s a vicious cycle of trying to balance out each other; but parents can start out with moderate philosophies, but skew toward the extremes in reaction to one another.
If you are experiencing conflict and distress with your co-parent because of a difference in parenting philosophies and parenting styles, it is essential to engage your co-parent in a discussion about what is happening. Try to avoid being critical, or judgmental of your co-parent, and try to avoid discrediting them in front of the children, or reversing their decisions. Instead, express empathy for how hard it is to figure out how to be a good parent, and invite your parent to learn with you how to find ways to parent collaboratively – or at least in ways that are complimentary.
If you are upset with your spouse because of the way he or she or they parent, give some thought to how they were raised by their parents. That often offers clues to why they parent in the way they do. We all learn bad habits as well as good ones from our families of origin. If we can have empathy for our partners in terms of what sort of challenges they faced growing up, we can try to feel less annoyed and critical, and more understanding.
If co-parenting does not improve, seek help from a counselor or therapist. Find books on parenting and suggest to your co-parent that you both read them, and discuss what you learn. Or attend a parenting class together, and discuss your thoughts about what is taught. When children grow up with parents in frequent conflict about parenting, they can be damaged – they do less well in school, can develop symptoms of depression, anxiety or anger, and as teens, they can begin to act out.
The good news is that many parents who respect one another but have different styles can enrich a child’s development because the child benefits from different perspectives, different beliefs, and is able to witness a modeling by the parents of negotiation, give and take, and flexibility.
Here are some examples of how parents with different styles can enrich their child’s development:
Let’s say Parent A tends to be more anxious, more of a planner, and more cautious about taking risks. Their co-parent, Parent B, is more relaxed, more spontaneous, and more comfortable with (reasonable) risks. As the children grow up, they become aware that Parent A is going to get them to activities on time, while Parent B needs reminders and to be hurried along. Parent A insists on a routine bed-time, while Parent B can occasionally be convinced to watch one more episode of a favorite tv show a bit past bed-time. Parent B is more likely to come up with a fun, silly adventure plan on the weekend and not worry so much about the children finishing their homework in advance. Parent A may say they are not allowed to go sledding on the big hill in the park – too dangerous! – while Parent B explains that if they wear their bike helmets and stay away from the trees at the bottom of the hill, it may well be safe enough. Parent B agrees to supervise the sledding.
You can see how these differences between parents could lead to a big fight between parents, or to one parent contradicting the other, or secretly saying yes to a child when the other parent had said no. All of that would be poor co-parenting and would likely lead to conflict.
On the other hand, if parents appreciate their differences, and understand WHY Parent A is cautious and Parent B is adventurous, both parents can help children appreciate that they have the best of both worlds: they have one parent who will make trains run on time, and another who will fill life with unexpected surprises.
Another common example is the pairing of one parent who tends to be very active and focused on outdoor and athletic activities, while the other is more of a homebody, someone who enjoys baking with the kids, cuddling up on the couch, or doing crafts at the dining table. Again, this could cause endless conflicts every weekend or during vacations. But if both parents appreciate the difference in the other, and celebrate those differences, and – again – are willing to compromise by sometimes joining in the fun that the other parent proposes, the children will benefit. While one sibling might naturally lean toward outdoorsy, sporty Parent X, another might love staying home to help cook dinner with Parent Y.
Bottom line: if parents support one another, if they meet differences with humor and patience, if each parent compromises and sometimes moves their style toward the center, children will be enriched by the differences. If each parent tunes into gratitude that their co-parent offers different experiences and different strengths in rearing the children, both parents will feel appreciated and valued. These feelings contribute not just to great parenting, they contribute to a happy partnership and a satisfying marriage.