Raising kids is a messy, complicated and stressful undertaking. And it can put a lot of strain on a marriage even in the best of circumstances. When parents have conflicting ideas of how best to approach child-rearing and don’t work to get on the same page, that strain increases and arguments ensue. Done regularly, this not only adds tension and resentment to a marriage but is also harmful for kids.
“Parenting issues are one of the common things married couples disagree on,” says Lori Whatley, a marriage and family therapist based in Atlanta. “And it’s important to know that parental conflict can have a negative impact on your kids.”
Opposing parenting styles are almost to be expected in a marriage. A parental unit is formed by two separate people who were formed by different backgrounds, beliefs, and parental figures of their own. Each brings their own ideas of everything from discipline to bed time routines to the table and, more often than not, it can put them at odds with their partner when it comes to developing strategies to raise the kids.
Experts agree that different parenting styles are fine. Parents should be themselves and it’s okay for, say, one to be quieter and the other to be more outgoing. Problems arise, however, when those conflicting styles result in a disagreement over what decisions should be made regarding discipline and basic rules. If one partner was raised with a strict bedtime routine and the other was raised with a more lax approach to nighttime habits, that’s a natural nightly conflict. Unless it is discussed and resolved in private, big problems will occur. Whatever the disagreement, partners need to find a way to get on the same page. Kids will know if they’re not.
“We must realize that kids are smarter than we realize or think they are and their development and intelligence begins at birth,” says Whatley. “Parents need to find ways to agree to disagree early in the parenting process.” Peaceful parenting, she adds, matters in all age groups of kids.
By following a simple set of guidelines, parents can learn to fuse their different approaches to parenting together and create a healthy and well-balanced approach to raising their kids. Here’s what to keep in mind.
Don’t Fight About the Kids in Front of the Kids
Listen, we know it’s nearly impossible to shelve arguments until a kid is asleep or out of the room. Even if parents do, there will be stares, whispers, cocked eyebrows, and all sorts of silent warfare that breaks out. That’s natural. There are also times when it’s helpful for kids to see their parents argue about certain topics to allow them to understand that conflict is a necessary part of life But, when it comes to specifically arguing about issues directly or indirectly about the kids, parents need to avoid that behavior at all costs. “Research supports that depression, anxiety rule breaking and aggression can be a behavior of a child who experiences his parents as disagreeing regularly,” Whatley says. Arguing in front of a child can be incredibly damaging to their psyche, as it creates a sense of instability and insecurity. This can manifest as guilt and a feeling of responsibility, leading to lifelong feelings of inadequacy.
Always Remember: Parents Must Be a United Front
Conflict is necessary for a marriage to thrive, and being able to discuss your disagreement openly is much more psychologically preferable to shutting it in. But, in the moment, parents need to present a united front. Even if one hates what the other is saying, they need to accept that what the other is doing — or in their opinion trying and failing to do — is for the best for the child. This means no interrupting. No passive aggressive sighing. No secret looks from one parent to the child that makes it known that there is a disagreement in what’s being said. Parents can hash out their big or small issues with what was said later. What matters the most for both the health of a relationship and the child is presenting a unified front. Besides, if a child sees that their parents don’t appear united, they will note it and either immediately or later on, exploit the weakness for their own benefit.
Never Call Out the Other’s Point of View
It’s bad form for one parent to assume the other is wrong simply because he or she views a situation differently. This extends not only to an argument at hand, but also to their overall views when it comes to parenting. Use such moments to learn how a partner was raised, what their values were, how their parents handled discipline. Understanding how a partner thinks and empathizing with their side helps anticipate how they’ll react in a parenting situation to discuss before or after. “We allow each other to present their point of view and their reasoning behind it,” says Lucy Harris, the CEO of Hello Baby Bump in regards to her own approach to disparate parenting with her spouse. “Often times my husband and I will come to an understanding of the other and one of us will give in.”
Keep “You” Out of the Conversation
Word choice is important when having any kind of argument. When talking to a partner about a disagreement, husbands and wives need to avoid accusatory statements such as “You never back me up!” and “You let them get away with everything!” Such statements do nothing but put the other partner on the defensive. Instead, the best route is explain what you’re feeling and looking for. (i.e. I feel like I don’t ever get any back up when trying to get the kids to bed.) up“Make the statement about what you need rather than what your spouse did,” says Whatley. “This will help them hear you and respond more respectfully.”
Don’t Undermine Your Partner
There’s an inherent desire in parents who disagree for one to play the role of “good cop” and toss of a casual “Yeah, mom’s no fun. Candy before bed is great.” This can be as destructive as fighting in front of your kids. It lets the child know that the parental union isn’t strong and sets the stage not only for further disciplinary problems, but also longer-term issues down the road. It’s okay to tell your child that you understand how they feel (in fact, that empathy is essential) but a parent must follow it up with a statement of support for their partner. A statement like, “I know it’s a bummer not to be able to go to that sleepover. I really get it, but your Dad and I just don’t feel like it’s a good idea.” This shows both empathy for your child and unity between the parents. That’s a win for everyone involved.