Working with Different Parenting Styles
One of the greatest challenges to a marriage is co-parenting, especially when the parenting styles of each of the parents are quite different or worse yet, in direct opposition to each other. In my work with couples, this issue comes up more than any other single issue that couples bring in to marriage counseling. I have also noticed that the article on "parenting styles" is one of the most read articles on our website. So what makes this issue such a hot topic among couples?
(1) First, it is a very complex issue in that it involves each partner's values, experiences related to their own upbringing, and issues with their parents' parenting styles.
(2) Secondly, it has longevity since children are forever.
(3) Third, it adds a third person to the former dyad of husband and wife which requires stretching the marital relationship in ways that have no real precedent or previous experience.
(4) Last, parents feel a great deal of responsibility where their children are concerned, so parenting decisions have a high level of importance that often is quite emotionally charged.
Parenting differences are not a problem that can be put away on the back burner. Children require parenting strategies on a daily basis which brings all of the issues to the forefront much of the time. If you are not familiar with what is meant by "parenting style" or just want some clarification, read my article on our website entitled Assessing Your Parenting Style which should help clarify the information I'll be referencing in this article.
What is the Prevalence of Different Parenting Styles?
I do not know of any actual research on this specific subject. There is quite a bit of research on the effects of different or maladaptive parenting styles as they relate to different aspects of development, particularly on the incidence of adolescent drug use and social functioning. You can take a look at Google and look for "academic studies" if you have a particular interest in these subjects. Back to our question about the prevalence of different parenting styles – I think the better question is "Are there stereotypical differences between mothers and fathers that arise across the board?" Again, this is a question that I can answer based only on my own experience. I do see a lot of cases where fathers are more concerned about discipline and maintaining authority while mothers are more focused on emotional issues of self esteem. That being said, this is a typical stereotype and many parents fall outside of this pattern. Sometimes, it is reversed altogether so that the mother in a situation is stricter and the father more lenient.
The real problem lies in the underlying values and premises about the way children should be handled, and then how these actually play out in parenting strategies. For example, an underlying value might be something along the lines of "Children should be seen and not heard." The way this value plays out in parenting is that when a child is told to do something, he would not be allowed to verbalize any type of response including questioning, arguing, objecting or disagreeing. An opposing value in this case might be "Children should be allowed to voice their feelings about what is expected of them." With this as the underlying value, the practice might be to allow children to voice their objections, disagreement, or questions about what is asked of them. I'm not suggesting that either of these approaches is the correct way. The point rather is that to begin to look at parenting styles and work with them, we need to go to the underlying values and premises which I'll talk about more as we get further into our discussion.
How Do People Develop a Parenting Style?
Most of us come with a parenting style, even though we may not be aware of it. Let me explain. As we grow up, we have first-hand experience of the parenting styles of both of our parents (or one parent if raised by a single parent only). Because our experience begins early in childhood when we are in a more malleable phase of development, the styles have a great impact on us and are internalized on a subconscious level. Our experiences with being nurtured, soothed, cared for, taught, and disciplined are not something we learn about from outside ourselves, but are directly embedded into our psyche through our experience with parents. When we become parents ourselves, the blueprint from our own families of origin are already set in and this blueprint is the background of the parenting style we develop as we begin parenthood.
I see parents falling into one of three categories as they work with their blueprint as follows:
Unconscious Approach to Parenting
For some parents, the old blueprint is simply played out again without much thought as to whether it is an effective style. For parents in this category, the representative statement would be something along the lines of "If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for my kids." When questioned from the outside as to the effectiveness of the style, they might say something like "I turned out all right, didn't I?" These parents automatically accept the parenting style they are handed without really questioning whether it is effective. The underlying values are well internalized and accepted almost as if by rote. These parents really have no conflict internally about how kids should be raised. The approach is black and white and defined.
When I was working in child abuse services, I once had a conversation with a colleague on the subject of corporal punishment. He said "My father beat me many times, but I turned out fine." I didn't know this person well enough to make a judgment as to whether that was true or not, but the point is that in his mind the parenting style of his father was a given. It was the way it was and the way it should be and there was no need to question it. He had just internalized it and saw no problem with continuing to use this style with his own kids.
Semi-Conscious Approach to Parenting
Other parents have a more conscious approach to their parenting style which means they begin with the blueprint they are given, but may along the way question some of its practices. They are not comfortable going too far from the tree, but they are willing to examine specific practices if they are experiencing a good deal of discomfort with a strategy. For example, they may come from an extremely authoritarian parenting style background and they accept the basic premise of that style which says that parents should exert total authority and control over their children. At the same time, they may decide that the use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary strategy is an ineffective practice, and so they come up with alternative disciplinary tactics. They tweak parts of the original blueprint to make improvements. These tweaks are accompanied by some degree of deviation from the family of origin values. Overall, these parents are not comfortable with a full examination of the blueprint for its effectiveness. Such an examination would lead to anxiety and a feeling of separation from their families.
Conscious Approach to Parenting
There is a third group of parents that want to know all they can about how to parent, regardless of whether they think they have a good beginning blueprint or not. These parents consciously do research on a variety of subjects including child and adolescent development, discipline, sibling rivalry, education, temperament, and all aspects of parenting. They also clearly define their values and goals for themselves and their children so that they formulate a parenting style that is in keeping with these values. They are more likely to ask the question "What am I trying to accomplish with this parenting strategy and is it in the best interest of my child?" They decide what they think are the best ideas and tools and start with these, keeping in mind that they may change as they go along depending on what they learn. These parents may end up accepting a large portion of their parenting blueprints if they find them to be effective and healthy, but they are not afraid to deviate from them if they feel that is called for. If these parents have come from a highly ineffective background or one that is abusive, they are willing to start from scratch. These parents have a very conscious method of selecting parenting strategies.
Most Common Approach to Parenting
The largest group of parents fall somewhere in the middle, or "semi-conscious approach to parenting", which means they have some thought as to whether the parenting style they were raised with needs some tweaking. Unfortunately, I also believe there are a large number of parents who parent from a more unconscious point of view which means they simply repeat what they learned and/or parent without giving much thought to issues such as child development, individuation, discipline versus punishment, a child's individual temperament and particular parenting needs, etc. More often these parents were raised with a style that did not promote evaluation and assessment, but rather rote conditioning.
What's the Negative Side of Conflicting Parenting Styles for Children?
There are many, some of which are quite obvious and others that are less easy to detect because they may not show up until later into adulthood. Some of the most common are as follows:
Children feel great confusion as to what to do, how to act, what's okay and not okay and generally what the "real" rules are.
Parenting conflicts offer children the opportunity to come between their parents and work both sides, manipulating situations for their seeming benefit. Of course, this is not a real benefit, but quite harmful in the long run as it models dishonest, manipulative relationships lacking in real appreciation and empathy.
Children can become confidantes of one or both parents as each parent moves into a separate camp. They feel responsible for the conflict and have guilt that really shouldn't belong to them.
If the conflict is great and occurs often, children may have undue anxiety and/or depression, again due to the confusion and sense of guilt.
Children can end up devaluing one of their parents as they align themselves with the parent they feel has the best style, or the one that gives them the most privileges.
Ultimately, a child's sense of self is in danger of impairment due to the tug of war that is played out through him over and over. He becomes a battleground for the parents rather than a developing child who is being cared for and guided by parents who are in accord with one another.
As adults, children who come from families with greatly disparate parenting styles may feel that marriage is not a viable relationship, or they would rather not have children themselves, or worse yet, they mindlessly repeat the pattern by marrying someone with a very different style from theirs and the whole thing plays out again.
Also as adults, children coming from a very conflicted style may endure adult depression and/or anxiety as the effects of the conflict settle into their psyche.
Is There a Positive Side?
Believe it or not, there is if handled correctly. If two parents have a different style but are able to merge those styles with some give and take in a cooperative effort to parent in concert with each other, a child has the opportunity to see how differences can become complimentary and productive. In fact, no two parents are exactly alike and even though parents may agree on basic values and styles of delivery, there are always some differences – just are there are differences between men and women. Children know this and can use it in healthy ways if the parents are able to work together cooperatively. Here's an example:
Kevin is a 12 year old boy who wants to go fishing with his best friend's family. They are going deep sea fishing on a Saturday off the Gulf coast which is several hours away from where Kevin lives. The family is going to drive and take their boat which is docked at the coast. Kevin approaches his mother first whose immediate reaction is "no." She is afraid it is too dangerous and she doesn't want to take a chance on anything happening to Kevin. She is not open to discussion. (More Authoritarian Style.) So Kevin approaches his Dad who he feels will be more lenient and might help plead his case with Mom. Dad thinks it's a good opportunity for Kevin and that it will be a lot of fun. He is quite enthusiastic about the idea and he's ready to say "yes." (More Permissive Style.) However, he doesn't give an immediate answer but states that he will talk to Mom and they will give a decision together. When Mom and Dad do talk, they establish requirements that must be met including speaking with the parents who will be taking Kevin, finding out in detail about the plans, going over any safety precautions, and setting up ways of staying in contact if need be. They decide to let him go after all of the requirements have been met.
Now in this example, it might seem that there was not a great deal of difference but in fact if Mom had been in charge of this situation, the answer most likely would have been no. If Dad had been in charge, the answer likely would have been yes but he may not have looked into the preliminaries which were in fact good precautions. What is important here is that Kevin knew right away what the answers of each of his parents were likely to be, and he used this knowledge to try and work the situation in his favor which he did. You could say this was manipulative, but really he did not come between his parents at all, just appealed to both for what he wanted. The parents smartly compromised and came up with a situation that would work, and Kevin had the experience of seeing how opposing camps can come together to solve a problem.
Another positive side of having somewhat different parenting styles is that a child can go to the parent who is not upset with him when the other one is. If done correctly, the second parent can allow the child to verbalize their feelings about what is going on with the other parent without taking sides. That way, no limits or decisions are altered but children have a chance to express their own feelings while also learning that a relationship can handle differences.
What's the Most Contructive Way to Deal with Different Parenting Styles?
This is by far the more difficult question because style differences are not just a matter of "differences." There are some styles that are better than others and some styles that are actually harmful. If there are some differences in style, but overall the best interests of the child are a top consideration, than cooperative compromising is good. But if one parent is abusive, then there can be no real compromising from the other to cooperate with harmful methods.
If the parents are able to have a real discussion and amenable to examining their parenting styles, keeping the best interest of the children in mind, then the discussion should proceed in this manner:
#1 Review Your Parents' Parenting Styles
Begin by talking about how each parent was raised in their family of origin. Pick four or five points of interest such as discipline, decision making, caretaking, nurturing, show of love and affection, and participation in activities. How were these areas played out in each family? Using the area of discipline as an example, the following questions might be asked: Who was the disciplinarian? Who decided what the consequences would be? What kinds of consequences or punishments were levied? For what kinds of infractions? Who made the rules and what were they? Did the parents agree or disagree on methods? How could you tell? Were the parents strict or lenient? The point of this conversation is to allow each parent to outline for themselves exactly what their parents' styles were and how they experienced them. Sometimes adults have not really thought this through in a way that puts together a real picture of how they were raised, how it impacted them, what went well, what didn't and more importantly, how they feel about it. Secondly, this type of discussion helps each parent more clearly define their values regarding parenting and children. Third, by going through the process together and each partner really listening to what the other has to say, they begin to establish what I call a cooperative working ground to begin to build their own style. This is not an activity to be rushed. It can be done over days if need be, and certainly should involve some hours. Sometimes the discussion takes place on one day, but as the week goes on, other events or incidences arise in memory that broaden out the picture. This sort of conscious review of our own experiences as children lay the groundwork for more conscious parenting. Optimally, this exercise should be conducted prior to having children.
#2 Define Values and Parenting Strategies
Hopefully, if the first step goes well, you will have already begun to define the values you wish to give to your children as well as some of the specific parenting practices you feel are optimal for getting those values across. Step two is to refine this task. List the primary values you wish to impart to your children and what you hope to accomplish in the eighteen plus years they will be living with you. Next list the major categories of parenting strategies and under each, list what specific activities or practices you will use. For example, under the category of "enhancing self-esteem," you might list activities such as making us of praise and recognition, developing specific talents and encouraging them, helping your children voice their thoughts and feelings, and so forth. This will require a lot of thinking and maybe even some research. You may want to read up on some of the ideas and strategies to see what you think might be the best ones for your purposes. You may use some of the same strategies your parents used if you feel they were healthy and effective. The idea is to begin to establish your own parenting blueprint.
#3 Identify Conflicts and Compromise
Third, list the areas of disagreement. Be sure to recognize the areas of disagreement in the values as well as the strategies. Different values come first and are at the heart of different parenting practices. If you do not deal effectively with value differences first, then you will be at odds constantly when actually trying to enforce particular strategies. Your children will feel this struggle. After you have recognized the differences, begin to work toward a compromise. Remember that all values and strategies must have the best interest of the child as the goal. I like to start at the goals and work backward which means I begin with what I want my child to have accomplished psychologically, emotionally, and cognitively by the time they leave home. Next I figure out how to make that happen. Parenting practices should always be a means to accomplishing a defined goal that is aimed at enhancing your child's development and well-being.
#4 Seek a Third Party for Help
Finally, if you are unable to resolve your differences or at least enough of them that you can begin to move forward as you work through the others, then by all means seek a third party to help you. A counselor who specializes in family issues is one choice. You can also look for parenting classes or groups that offer education in parenting strategies. Another good idea is to read parenting books and discuss them, but this will only work if you are able to have a constructive discussion without arguing. If not, get a counselor's help. The important point is not to let the problem go on as your children will pay the price, and in most cases, so will your marriage. It's in everyone's best interest to solve parenting issues as quickly as you can so you can enjoy the experience of being a parent while also giving your children the best that you have.