Making Cooperative Parenting Work - when mom and dad disagree
By Jennifer Scoby
Remember spending time with your significant other before you had children and thinking, "Wow, this person is going to make a really wonderful parent! I want to have babies with this person!" You envisioned your life together, sharing special moments and sharing the joy of parenting your children. Well, now you are parents and maybe you're still crazy in love with each other, or maybe there's some distance now, and you may have found that combining your parenting isn't necessarily a piece of cake.
I'm not a marriage counselor or a family therapist or a psychologist, so feel free to take my words with a grain of salt, but as a married mother of two and having planned several cooperative parenting meetings for API of Peoria, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this issue over the past five years. I know from experience how difficult it can be to maintain a healthy marriage and do what's best for your children at the same time, and as a parenting support group leader, I have an interest in helping others to succeed in parenting TOGETHER.
Some of you don't need any help with this I'm sure. Somehow for some couples parenting cooperation seems to happen so naturally and easily, but for many of us it takes more practice to get to a harmonious parenting plane.
If you wanted to avoid parenting conflict entirely, you could have chosen to marry essentially yourself. You would have found someone who was raised in an identical home environment, by parents who were just exactly like yours, who had the same rules, same problems, same traditions and the same successes. Oh, and you'd have the same genetic make-up as well. You'd agree on everything about parenting, because you'd be so similar in the first place, and in all of your years on earth, the two of you would have independently developed the exact same likes and dislikes, the same ideals, the same set of personal beliefs and the same goals for your futures. Parenting issues just wouldn't exist for the two of you! Whenever something came up, you'd agree. From whether baby should sleep with you or alone to which of your child's friends you think he should and shouldn't spend time with.
The job of parenting doesn't come with a manual, but it does come with billions of little parenting decisions and big parenting philosophies. And how we handle all of that is based on the intricately complex and unique thoughts and beliefs that make us who we are. Unfortunately, more likely than not, your spouse is just as unique as you are and your spouse isn't you.
Then again, maybe marrying someone exactly like you wouldn't be such a lucky thing after all. Are you alone everything you want your children to be? Are you good at everything? Can you teach your children everything they need to know about life? Taking the best and leaving the rest is far easier when you have choices. The merging of two different life perspectives through combined active parenting creates children who are more well rounded and who can take the best from each parent.
So combined active participation in parenting is good, but how do we do that when parenting is a major source of disagreement? Like I said earlier, I'm not an expert, but I can think of some things that we can all do to bridge the distance in our parenting styles as couples (no matter how big the gap), to make cooperative parenting easier and better and to build a stronger marriage at the same time.
Get over yourself
That sounds harsh I know, but you'll never get even close to being on the same page with each other as a couple if you don't start here. Instead of spending your time frustrated and wondering why your spouse can't see things your way, take a few minutes and try to see things through her / his eyes. Could they have a good reason to want to do things their way? Is it possible for them to have thought of something that you haven't?
Sooner or later we all discover that our spouses aren't perfect. It's harder to admit that we might be just as imperfect. Remember that you make parenting mistakes too. Maybe sometimes, you even discover in hindsight that you were going about something all wrong in the first place. Forgive and forget what you perceive to be your spouse's parenting shortcomings. He / She is human just like you. And just like you, he / she has a lot to offer.
Admit your mistakes
Not such an easy thing to do when you're being criticized for what you're doing by your spouse. But, sharing your fears, concerns and failings as a parent is a way to maintain emotional intimacy with your sweetheart that can actually diffuse parenting conflict rather than intensify it, helping you to get to the same level and work as a team. Your spouse will be much less likely to feel judged by you if you are open and honest and don't hold yourself on a pedestal. And in an atmosphere of friendship and forgiveness, your spouse may be more willing to look critically at his or her own parenting.
Find your common ground
The more the two of you perceive yourselves to be in agreement, the less damaging your parenting disagreements will be. Find the smallest fragments of agreement between you and point them out. "I'm so glad I married someone who gets where I'm coming from on the importance of good nutrition for our kids. It helps a lot that our kids see us both eating right." or "I completely agree with you about asking Jonathan to replace that broken game out of his allowance. That was a good idea" or "There's nothing so warm and wonderful as our family bed. I love sharing that with you and our kids." Further strengthen your common ground by setting goals together for your children, family and future parenting.
Narrow your list of differences
…by zeroing in on the fundamentals. Generalize your disagreements so you can see the big picture. Maybe your more frequent arguments are over which toys, music, books, TV shows, movies, etc., are appropriate for your little ones, over your views of appropriate expressions of anger and over your differences in discipline policy. One tie between all of these could be your concern over your children's exposure to violence. Getting to the bottom line gives you a more constructive platform for discussion. Rather than spending your time on each of the above arguments, get down to the nitty-gritty and communicate about your basic ideals. It's possible that just voicing your views in a non-judgmental way could bring you to common ground. If you still don't agree after discussion, you can talk about ways to compromise on the details. The kids can watch the boxing match as long as we have a family discussion about violence, for example.
Look for the good
You've put a lot of thought and energy into your role as parent. Your spouse has too. You love your children more than you ever thought possible. So does your spouse. You want to do everything you can to make sure your children are healthy, happy, well adjusted individuals. So does your spouse! Recognize that you aren't the only one with good intentions. Realize how blessed you are that your spouse wants to be involved enough for you to have a parenting disagreement. It's a sign of love for your children and for the family you've created together.
Praise what you like
Support feels good. We all need it. Instead of jumping in and criticizing all of the things that your spouse does that you don't agree with, save your comments for when a pat on the back is in order. Judging each other can lead to hurt feelings, defensiveness and communication shutdown. Constructive praise leaves the recipient feeling appreciated, good about his or her parenting and more willing to listen to your ideas. Help your spouse to see her or himself as the best parent they could be. "That was great how Nick came to you with his problem. He really trusts you" or "The way you played with Jessica this morning was so sweet. She's lucky to have a daddy like you." or "The kids learn so much from the way you stay composed when you're angry".
Remember the golden rule? Treat others the way you would like to be treated? Start with your spouse. You might be surprised at the treatment that you receive in return.
Model preferred parenting
One very powerful way of communicating the effectiveness of the parenting style that you prefer is to show it working with your children. Let your spouse see your use of positive discipline when relevant situations arise. Use the kind of language with your children that you would hope your spouse would use. Sometimes, seeing is believing and sometimes, parenting techniques just "rub off" onto others!
Share the load
Like many of you, I'm the kind of person who does a lot of reading, researching and thinking, and I base a lot of my decisions on my synthesis of that. My mistake is that I tend to do it alone. By the time my husband is even aware of a problem, I've often already read about it, talked about it, thought about it and made up my mind! Because I've gone through so much effort to get to a decision, I'm done. I don't want to go back and discuss it with him, except for telling him how it is. This sends him the message that I don't care to include him in our family issues, and that I don't value his input. Eventually, in similar situations, some spouses give up even making an effort, relinquishing their role as active parenting participants and their connection with their children suffers.
It's so hard to give up control when you feel like you have better answers than your spouse does. But when you allow your spouse the opportunity to handle parenting situations without your "help", you give them the chance to work through how they feel about your family's issues, to strengthen their own parenting relationship with your children, and ultimately to become the best parent they can be. Stepping in and taking control of all of the parenting situations can hurt your marriage relationship, your spouse's relationship with your children, and your children's potential. Conversely, putting your faith in your spouse by stepping aside and supporting his / her decisions communicates that you trust him / her and have confidence in his / her parenting abilities. This is something that he / she will want to live up to. And communicating your support of your spouse in the presence of your children sends them the message that they can trust decisions from both of you, giving them a strong sense of security.
Compromise, not competition
Sometimes it feels like it would be so much easier to do all of the parenting decision-making ourselves. It takes time and effort to communicate about all of our parenting thoughts and to do things as partners. But by working as parenting equals, setting goals, discussing issues from the get-go, listening to each others ideas, making decisions together and supporting each others actions whether we fully agree or not, we stand the best chance of cooperative success.
At a recent API of Peoria potluck meeting about making marriage work while attachment parenting Mike Rewers, the presenter said something that has stuck with me since. Marriage isn't about one person getting his or her way, it's about finding that middle road. It's about compromise. Commit to the importance of your marriage to your family. Weigh the options. What's more important, this parenting disagreement or the marriage? Choose your marriage when you can. Make the effort to work as partners and to tailor your actions to the priorities that you hold dear. Not only will you, your marriage and your children benefit, but while working together you'll be modeling to your children some of the most important skills that you can pass on: positive conflict resolution, teamwork, maintenance of a healthy marriage and good parenting to boot!
Jennifer Scoby is the mother of Sierra ('98) and Genevieve ('02) and is married to Eric, a professional firefighter. Jennifer juggles family life, leading an active chapter of Attachment Parenting International in Peoria, Illinois and working outside of the home full-time. The Scoby 's are outdoor enthusiasts and include hiking, camping, kayaking and mountain biking in their long list of favorite things to do. Jennifer's goal is to provide parents, including herself, with parenting tools for happier children and happier families.