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Parenting Styles in Conflict

Why it's usually best—even when you're right—to let good enough be good enough.

Key points

  • Every parent has a unique take on what's needed in raising their children. They bring their own personality and life history to the job.
  • Let it be OK that you and your partner have different perspectives on parenting. You may know best, but that's not what matters most.
  • Calm, loving, family harmony is more important to your child than both parents doing everything right.
  • Do what you can to be a good-enough (not perfect!) parent to your child. That will be enough.
Afif Kusuma/Unsplash
Source: Afif Kusuma/Unsplash

It’s normal and healthy for two people to have different perspectives on parenting. Every parent brings their own unique personality and life experience to the job, so it makes sense they’ll have different parenting styles, attitudes, expectations, and perspectives.

You may be completely right about what your child most needs, but in the long run, the only thing that really matters is that your child feels loved and supported by each of you. It’s even better if they feel that you and your partner are a team working in their best interest, rather than conflicting bosses they can appeal to separately as it suits their purpose. Whether or not you live together, things will go better for everyone if you can find a respectful way of working together in your child’s interest.

No matter how much you’ve learned about good parenting, and no matter how wrong-headed your partner is about it, you probably have something to learn from their perspective. At the very least, it’s a great exercise in conflict resolution to sort out your differences so you can move forward in some kind of peaceful co-existence. Maybe you’ll decide to split responsibilities, one of you managing all decisions around meals and bedtimes, and the other becoming the recognized authority on school decisions. If you can find ways to share responsibilities for your child’s well-being, you’ll provide great role models of collaborative problem-solving.

But What About Special Needs Kids?

Differences in parenting styles can feel more urgent and problematic if you have a child with special needs. If your child is emotionally volatile, for example, you might see the importance of reliable schedules, but your partner might suggest spontaneous activities that result in missed mealtimes or bedtimes that can be guaranteed to set off one of your child’s raging tantrums. As far as you’re concerned, a bit of extra fun is not worth hours of heavy emotional upheaval.

If you have a spirited or difficult child, it’s easy to think that parenting style really matters, because it does. If you’re working hard to parent effectively—you’re going to therapy, doing some reading, or participating in a parenting group—and have learned some good techniques, of course you want your partner to do it right, too. You can see the benefits of doing it that way, and you know the costs for your child and the whole family of doing it wrong.

Good Enough Is Better than Perfect

Very often, parental conflict comes about because one of the parents wants to provide perfect parenting, and (based on therapy, reading, personal history, or discussion with experts) knows something about what works best. But as much as you might know what’s best, perfect parenting isn’t what matters most, even in a special needs situation. In Imperfect Parenting: How to Build a Relationship with Your Child to Weather Any Storm, I write about the ways that "good enough" is actually better than perfect for your child and your family. This is truer now than ever, when there are so many other reasons for anxiety.

I’m sympathetic to your frustration when your partner stays embedded in their old ways. I share your anguish when they say things like, “My parents punished me if I cried or complained. That worked for me, and it’ll work for our kid.” You know that things will go better if your partner can learn to listen to your child, and respond with kindness and understanding rather than punishment. And although you’re right about that, being right isn’t the most important thing here.

Although I, too, wish your partner would acquire more enlightened parenting habits, that might be too much to ask at the moment. Unless you’re concerned that your partner is abusing your child, do what you know to be right with your child, and do your best to be as patient and loving with your partner as you want them to be with your child. Your home will feel more harmonious, and that will be good for all of you.

Another reason to move toward good-enough-but-not-perfect solutions is that people who strive for perfection tend to blame themselves or others when things don’t go well. Blame never helps. It only causes more problems, sometimes to the point of putting relationships in jeopardy.

And speaking of putting relationships in jeopardy, sometimes arguments about parenting practices aren’t about parenting at all, but are really about deeper problems. If you and your partner are experiencing a lot of conflict around parenting, take a good look at the relationship itself. If you’re frequently in conflict, you might benefit from some family counselling.

Recommendations for Moving Forward for Your Child’s Well-Being, Regardless of Your Partner’s Parenting Practices

  1. Do what you know to be best for your child. Be a role model of good-enough (not perfect!) parenting.
  2. Prioritize family harmony. Your child needs a calm environment more than they need ideal parenting techniques from both parents.
  3. Be kind and patient with your partner. They’re doing the best they know how. You may not want to hear this, but you probably even have something to learn from them.
  4. Choose your battles. Let the small stuff slide, and intervene with your partner only on the big issues, where you believe your child is being damaged. When that happens, tell your partner privately what you’re thinking and why it’s so important to your child’s development that you both do it your way.
  5. Think long term. Eventually, your partner will realize that your way is the best way to go.

And Don’t Listen to the Experts

Like all the experts out there, I’ve got some ideas about what might work for you, but I can’t know what’s best for you and your family. Only you can know that. As I write in Imperfect Parenting, “Your family’s situation is unique, as it pulls together your various and dynamic resources, experiences, attitudes, and temperaments. That means your challenges and your solutions are unique to you.”

NOTE: This article resulted from a conversation with the ADHD Warrior Mamas, the ADHD Village’s signature program for moms raising kids with ADHD.