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Effective Co-Parenting: Making Different Styles Work

Parents do better when they’re on the same page.

Key points

  • What matters most for one parent may not matter most for the other parent.
  • The caregiving style shown to lead to the best emotional adjustment in children is authoritative.
  • Compromise is critical to supportive co-parenting relationships.

No matter the caregiving arrangements—single parents, separated or divorced parents, widows or widowers, sharing care with another family member, or two-parent household—when parents are not aligned with their approaches, children often use that to their advantage and play a parent off of another.

One parent enforces a no-dessert policy if their child does not finish dinner, while the other parent doesn’t see the big deal in the grand scheme of things in still allowing a small dessert. One parent prefers to wait on getting their child a phone, while the other sees an immediate need for a phone in case of emergencies. One parent insists a child participate in religious education classes, while the other parent adamantly opposes.

As spring break arrives at schools around the country, families may be spending more time together so varying childrearing styles can be on prominent display. Differing beliefs around childrearing can, and often do, lead to ineffective parenting practices and conflict.

But they don’t have to. Parents having differing beliefs, even contrasting, around child-rearing may actually be an asset.

As a pediatric psychologist in a clinic that specializes in working with parents around managing their young child’s behaviors, I have seen many people deal with concerns over noncompliance, oppositionality, defiance, aggression, feeding problems, sleep problems, and more.

Children can be the ultimate limit-testers, in their minds, they may think, “What do I have to lose?” They may consider pulling out all the stops in avoiding homework time, bathtime, and bedtime. They may consider asking to sleep in bed with mommy and daddy every night and not relent if they say no.

When a child considers the worst case scenario is that they’re still in the same place that they started and the best case scenario is they end up getting what they want – children learn that whining, arguing, stalling, procrastinating, or having a tantrum can work for them.

It’s hard enough for one parent to give commands, then respond in a consistent way to how the child handles those commands. But when another parent not only believes a different response is in order but actually undermines the other parent, that’s a recipe for problems.

Over 63 million U.S. households have children that parents are raising. Roughly 15 percent of these households include a single parent with no partner present; they may rely on friends and family to pitch in with support, or they may take on the brunt of childrearing alone.

For parents sharing childrearing responsibilities with another parent, they may not always see eye to eye.

For many families, it is not the goal to get to the point where parents agree on every caregiving approach they use. Many families, despite having different parenting beliefs, work together in compromise and solidarity on the issues that matter most.

What matters most for one parent may not matter most for the other parent. Compromise is: “I’ll support that way of responding to that issue. Can you support this way of responding to this issue?”

The caregiving style recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the style shown to lead to the best emotional adjustment in children is called authoritative. This style is characterized by being firm in enforcing rules and limits, while still focusing on creating a positive relationship. In a seminal study from 2008, having at least one authoritative parent predicted better adjustment in late adolescence.

The key here is the degree to which compromise occurs, even when parents may display different parenting styles. Compromise is critical to supportive co-parenting relationships, particularly after relationship dissolution.

In sessions with parents, it is optimal to focus on understanding the functions of child behavior (like getting attention or other rewards, getting out of doing something), giving effective commands, rewarding okay behaviors and effectively dealing with not okay behaviors. It is best to focus on the skills that parents need to establish safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for their children.

These skills can be difficult to teach and even more difficult for parents to put to use. For many parents, the Grand Canyon-sized chasm between their childrearing beliefs often makes it difficult to work together on consistent strategies for managing their child’s behavior. They struggle to find solutions to move forward until they can get the other parent to come over to their side.

There are so many things that each parent brings into the parenting relationship—from age, culture, religion as well as their experiences with their own childhood and parents—that may lead to their having different beliefs than their co-parent.

When I work with these parents—whether married, separated, or divorced—and tensions are high due to the vastly different approaches to parenting that cause rifts in the relationship, I often tell parents that their child is lucky.

That is because their child is quite lucky to have parents with differing beliefs so they are exposed to a range of parenting perspectives.

There’s not always one parenting perspective that’s right, but rather different approaches may be right with different kids, at different times and in different situations.

There are some parenting styles that can be harmful such as: Overly punitive, indulgent, or neglectful styles.

Exposure to the range of safe perspectives allows for the possibility of finding the right approach that fits the needs of the child. What works best is deciding how to use compromise and teamwork to best support each child. This messaging around differing parental beliefs shifts a deficit-focused narrative into a strength-focused narrative.

Parents can acknowledge their differing parental beliefs not as an insurmountable problem to solve, but rather as an opportunity for a more diverse and enriching environment for their child to grow in.

As children grow up, they can see their parents had different, maybe vastly different, parenting philosophies on different issues but found a way to work together.

Children can take the best they have learned from both parents and incorporate that into their parenting practices. Maybe one parent was firmer with limits but less attuned to the child’s emotions, while the other parent was more lax but prioritized emotional availability.

There are strengths in both approaches that children can benefit from.

If they eventually become parents, they will have had a rich diversity of parenting viewpoints. That wider lens of viewpoints can make them better parents.They can incorporate the best of both parents into their own parenting approach.

If both parents were in lockstep with every approach, they would be consistent and likely effective. The downside is that their children would have a more narrow pool of experiences and perspectives to incorporate into their own parenting philosophy.

It might be fine when parents differ widely in their parenting beliefs, as long as compromise and teamwork are present, too.

More from Jeffrey D. Shahidullah Ph.D.
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