How To Argue About Parenting Differences And Not Lose Your Minds In The Process

Every couple goes to the mat about parenting issues. The key is learning how to make them as productive as possible — and picking your battles.

Originally Published: 
Middle aged husband and wife having an argument in their living room

Parenting forces you to make a lot of decisions. Big ones. Small ones. Small ones that feel big. You and your partner do your best to make level-headed choices but you argue about certain topics because of course you do. Like how much screen time is acceptable or whether time-outs are a proper form of discipline.

Raising kids is hard and disagreements are natural. But this still bugs you because at one time you were both in sync about how’d you parent. You’d always listen patiently. You’d fully explain your reasoning, and you would never, ever, ever yell. Right?

Parenting is a learn-on-the-go type of job and one of the discoveries is that you and your spouse won’t agree on everything.

Then you actually had kids and you realized that those were hopes. Sometimes feelings get exposed during meltdowns and way-too-early mornings because we all have our moments. Parenting is a learn-on-the-go type of job and one of the discoveries is that you and your spouse don’t agree on everything.

Here’s the thing. You and your partner are different people from different childhoods. Yes, you want to appear mostly unified, especially in front of the kids because they can find the soft spot in under two seconds. But overall, unless you have major disagreements about fundamental issues, it’s far from a problem.

“It’s actually useful to disagree,” says Yael Schonbrun, psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts. “If you can collaborate, that leads to the most powerful kind of parenting.”

That’s certainly a good thought, and it would be great if it was enough to drop defenses and lower tension. But it’s not. To get to the endpoint, it takes some thinking, talking, collaborating, and strategizing. And it starts with understanding why parenting disagreements with your partner happen in the first place.

Why Parenting Disagreements Happen

The obvious reason for any beef is the desire5 to be in control. It plays into the mindset of “I’m good with the plan as long as it’s my plan.” But the second, and probably bigger reason, is insecurity, specifically for fear of the unknown. We rarely have a guarantee on any outcome, but when it’s our kids, we hold on tighter.

“We want to control because it’s such a high stake’s game,” Schonbrun says.

There’s another component, too. Parenting is relentless and wears on our resolve. We stop thinking, start reacting, and want reasons for why things happen. The usual result is to blame our partner for being any number of things: too permissive, too soft, too unengaged.

As Schonbrun says, “Our emotions are driving the bus.”

It’s predicated on the idea that parenting involves a tiny target and we need to constantly shoot bull’s-eyes.

“Sometimes we think there’s only one right way. There’s not,” ” says Debbie Sorensen, Denver psychologist and co-author of ACT Daily Journal: Get Unstuck and Live Fully. “There are a lot of ways to be a good parent.”

What Battles Do You Really Want to Pick?

When you and your partner disagree on parenting issues, the trick is to accept that another option – not yours – has potential. What helps is to remember that the other idea is coming from your partner. They’re a co-owner and they’re also a teammate, and you know enough to know that few people perform better when scrutinized. That just kicks in the defenses and what follows is saving face.

First, realize that your spouse is also tired and worn out, and then give what Schonbrun calls “empathic effort,” with something like, “I’m guessing you’re frustrated.” You might be wrong, but the key thing is that you’re trying. That matters more than accuracy, and it allows everyone to unclench just a bit.

When you and your partner disagree on parenting issues, the trick is to accept that another option – not yours – has potential

But even before you open your mouth, you want to pause – never a bad move – and consider what’s actually important to you when it comes to parenting. We often base our ideas on what’s familiar, but that might not be what we actually believe or what works for our kids. Then we want to gauge how important a situation really is. Start the question to yourself with, “In five years, will it matter if…” Sorensen suggests.

Most stuff will get a “No,” but the other issues become your priority list and we can approach our partner and explain the importance. When “you” statements fade away. You’re picking your battles, so not everything sounds like the biggest deal. Your partner can listen and since it’s not an attack, it’s easier to get on board. Once you say your part, end with “What do you think?” “How can we work together?” As Schonbrun says, it becomes an invitation and that’s easier to accept.

Put Your Egos Away

No matter how open you remain with your partner, disagreements will always pop up. It’s good to remind yourself that you’re working together and there will always be another situation.

When an issue pops up, take it as rising to a challenge and getting out of your comfort zone. “Frame it as a bold move,” Sorensen says. And keep telling yourself that because your kids will always be changing, so what worked last year or even last month isn’t what’s called for right now.

What you really want is to agree to the big topics with your partner while giving each other the autonomy to make decisions. Because sometimes you’re flying solo and you can’t always confer. Each person needs to feel supported and confident in making the best call. Maybe the details are different or not like how you would do it, but because you’ve agreed on overall intent, there’s less weight and pressure to get anything “right” and less need to get into useless battles.

“You want to be on the same page,” Schonbrun says, “but you don’t need to be on the same line.”

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