Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

When Parents Have Different Styles: Does It Spell Disaster?

Many couples differ on the best way to raise children.

As a couple, Gina and Jeff weren’t exactly opposites, but they were different. Where she was more reactive, he was patient. While she was diligent, he was more forgetful. She always paid bills on time; he paid them when he thought of it. She was more critical of herself and others; he reminded her to relax a bit, and focus on people’s strengths. Each balanced out the other.

When it came to having kids, however, their differences became less complementary. As a first-time mom, Gina’s instinct was to establish firm, consistent rules—for the kids as well as for how she and Jeff parented them—from which no one should ever deviate. Jeff was more spontaneous, and more inclined to react to a specific situation at hand. As a result, Gina was often the stricter parent, while Jeff was the “nice guy,” which Gina began to resent. Jeff, in turn, began to resent what he saw as Gina’s constant harping, which he felt often created a tense household. He felt nothing he did was ever right—and, pressed, Gina might agree with that sentiment. “If Jeff promised to take away video games, for example, because of our son’s bad behavior, he wouldn’t always follow through on that if, say, the kids made amends somehow,” says Gina. “That would drive me crazy. He is reluctant to be the enforcer, which means I’m left to do it.” Jeff, meanwhile, says that sometimes Gina “scares the kids—and me, too.”

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When your parenting style differs from that of your partner, it can be frustrating at best and destructive at worst, creating dissonance and distance between partners and confusion among the kids. At the same time, it’s extremely commonplace: Many couples differ on the best way to raise children. This is true for male and female partners, but shows up among same sex couples as well. That’s because many of the personality traits and personal beliefs that parenting calls on lie dormant until there’s an actual child to parent—and the qualities that lead us to fall in love with each other as people don’t always lead us to fall in love with each other as parents.

Though many would-be parents study up on parenting before they have children, our styles are largely instinctual and unconscious, and based on how we were raised, what we observed in our own and in other families, and what we’ve been taught. Some parents, like Gina, are more authoritarian, where “parent knows best” and obedience is paramount. Others, like Jeff, are more permissive, afraid to upset the kids or reluctant to ruin the good time. Most of us are some combination. When practiced in conflict, differing parenting approaches can send mixed messages to the kids and ultimately undermine any form of parenting whatsoever. Conflicting styles can confuse kids as they wonder “whose side to take,” and what the real rules are. Kids can learn to manipulate situations for their benefit, which can foster similarly manipulative or dishonest qualities in them as adults. And in extreme cases, children can end up anxious or depressed. The parents, meanwhile, argue more—not only about parenting but also about other areas of their shared lives.

And yet different parenting styles needn’t spell disaster. In many ways, divergent styles can help prepare kids for a world of negotiating various types of people. They learn how dissimilarities can be complementary, and that those dissimilarities needn’t mean strife. What’s more, kids don’t have to have the same relationship with each parent, and it’s important to remember that “different” needn’t mean better or worse. And for parents, it’s once again a chance to achieve balance through difference. We’re individuals; we have individual ways of handling situations. That’s okay. What’s key is that each parent needs to be okay with the role they’re taking on—that is, if Gina is the primary disciplinarian, she needs to be okay with that. And that each parent supports the other in his or her approach, as well as offer counterpoints when they disagree—but best not in front of the kids. Agree to disagree later, after the kids are in bed or otherwise out of earshot. The most important function of co-parenting is forming a united front, and reinforcing to kids that even if two partners might react to a situation differently, they have each other’s backs. The message to the kids: Your parents are two distinct people, but as your parents we’re a single unit.

Achieving a conscious, helpful individual parenting style involves ongoing effort—we are who we are, but we can, and should, evolve, too. Parenting requires constant assessment and adjustment based on the individual child’s development and temperament. The same goes with parenting together, as a unit. Compromise is good, and necessary, and the best interests of the child should always receive top billing. Discuss your goals for raising your children, and how each of you would come to those goals. Then work to achieve those goals separately and together through structure, limits, compromise, understanding, adaptability, and, above all, unity.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, longtime expert, and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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