07 Aug Parenting from the Same Page
In this series of columns, we discuss how a parents can be a strong team in the great — and sometimes amazingly difficult! — undertaking of raising a family. The results include consistent parenting, a fair sharing of the load, and fewer quarrels.
Through our professional experiences and personal lessons, we’ve found that a cooperative parental partnership has three key qualities: communication, negotiation, and effective problem-solving.
Past columns have explored effective ways parents can communicate and negotiate with each other. In the next few columns, we will apply these methods to the sometimes thorny issues of of childrearing practices, who does what, sharing the load fairly, and money.
Let’s start with how parents can come together in their approach to raising children: in short, parenting from the same page.
It’s Hard to Be on the Same Page . . .
One mother told us this story: “I feel that Angelina, our 5-year-old, should watch only an hour of TV per day. My husband mumbles “OK, honey,’ but when I leave the house I come back to see her glued to the tube while he reads a book/pays bills/etc. And it’s not just TV: I say no sweets, he says “just a couple.” I say no spanking, he thinks a swat is OK. I say bed by 8, but that means I’ve got to do it. I read books about parenting and he reads the sports pages. I’m afraid that we are confusing our daughter plus driving each other crazy.”
This situation is really common. Parents often have very different values about how to raise children. The water gets muddied further with issues about power and who gets to be “right.” And there isn’t the cultural consensus that existed in times past when we raised our children in more homogeneous communities in which most people saw the world in pretty much the same way.
. . . But It’s Important
Nonetheless, children get confused when their parents approach them in different ways. Kids then don’t know who to believe, or they have to switch gears, depending on who they’re dealing with. It’s also more likely that your children will try to play you and your partner off against each other: “But dad said I could!”
Disagreements about childrearing also breed quarrels between parents. It is frustrating, disheartening, and maddening when your partner approaches what is to you the most important undertaking in your life in a way that seems wrongheaded or cavalier.
Minor differences in parenting style are OK. They help children prepare for the reality that teachers vary in their approaches, or one boss is strict while another is laid back. Therefore, we should not micro-manage our partner, or get dogmatic or self-righteous. But major differences are a problem.
To solve it, the first step is to pin down exactly what the differences are.
The Parenting Styles Assessment
Take a moment to fill out the questionnaire below about the parenting values and actions of yourself and your partner. Each of you may want to fill it out; either photocopy it or use different color pens. Skip questions that are irrelevant to your situation. Score each question in this way:
1 We mainly disagree
2 We somewhat disagree
3 We somewhat agree
4 We mainly agree
Values — The importance of . . .
_______ . . . being sensitive and responsive to your children
_______ . . . respecting the wants of your children
_______ . . . preventing the discomfort or unhappiness of your children
_______ . . . promoting the optimal psychological development of your children
_______ . . . encouraging and accepting the emotional expression of your children
_______ . . . religious upbringing
_______ . . . personally interacting with your children
_______ . . . physical affection toward your children
_______ . . . being polite toward relatives
_______ . . . being polite toward adults in general
_______ . . . studying hard and doing well in school
_______ Where your children sleep
_______ How your children are put to bed
_______ How you deal with your children if they wake up at night
_______ How long to breastfeed
_______ How many sweets your children are allowed to eat
_______ How many snacks your children are allowed to eat
_______ Expectations for children’s behavior at mealtimes
_______ How much TV or video your children are allowed to watch
_______ What sort of TV shows, videos, or movies your children are allowed to watch
_______ How much time your children are allowed to spend with Nintendo or computer games
_______ How much allowance to give
_______ How many toys to buy kids
_______ Use of swats or spanking for discipline
_______ Yelling at the kids when they misbehave
_______ Other consequences for misbehavior
_______ What to do when a child has a tantrum
_______ How to intervene when siblings quarrel with each other
_______ How to intervene when your child quarrels with each other child
_______ Other consequences for misbehavior
_______ What a parent should do if he or she has made a mistake with a child
Add up your total score. There are thirty-two questions altogether. (If you skipped some questions, just adjust the ranges below downwards.) Here is a rough estimate of the degree to which you and your partner parent from the same page:
100 – 128 You and your partner are raising your children in a very consistent way.
70 – 99 You and your partner agree more than you disagree. But there could be some significant disagreements.
50 – 69 You and your partner have major differences in how you approach childrearing.
Below 50 You and your partner are parenting from different books.
If there were major differences between you and your partner in the questionnaire above, try not to be discouraged: some differences are normal, and you can probably work them out.
For starters, take a look back over the previous six issues of The Family News, which contained our suggestions about how to communicate and negotiate effectively with your partner. (Please contact A.P.P.L.E. FamilyWorks if you need back issues, at 415/492-0720.)
Begin with Values
The way we parent is shaped by how we think we ought to parent. So that’s where parents should begin to come together.
Some differences in nuance or prioritization of values are inevitable, but serious conflicts in values confuse children and create marital conflicts. Thankfully, your discussion of values can be more based on facts than could be the discussions your own parents — let alone grandparents — had, because in the past thirty years, there has been a lot of really excellent research on child development and parenting.
The super-brief summary of those scientific studies is that optimal child development is promoted by:
• Highly loving, affectionate, and nurturing parenting
• Sensitive and rapid responsiveness to the wants of children, especially young ones
• An emotional atmosphere in the home that is generally positive
• Expectations for age-appropriate behavior by children (many parenting books or your pediatrician can describe what is age-appropriate)
• Expectations that a child achieve academically up to his potential
• Active discussion and modeling by parents of good moral values
• Clear standards for behavior
• Consistent rewards for good behavior and penalties for poor behavior
• The absence of harsh, erratic, physically or emotionally abusive parenting practices
Armed with these facts, we suggest these steps for resolving any differences in parenting values:
1. Acknowledge where you already agree about parenting values.
2. Define clearly where you disagree or are not sure you agree. Say back to each other what you think the other person’s values are in the areas where you disagree.
3. See if you can agree on the list of facts about parenting above, or a similar list from another source such as Berry Brazelton or Penelope Leach. (We suggest you be leery of sources who seem to have a political axe to grind or who do not cite research studies.) See if agreement on the facts of childrearing can narrow your disagreement.
4. Discuss, with empathy and respect, the childhood or life experiences that have shaped your values in these areas of disagreement. For example, you could explore the worldview that, perhaps, leads one parent to want to “toughen up” the children while the other one sees a world that is safe enough for less of an armored personality. Use that conversation to find where you might actually have common ground, rather than a disagreement.
5. Discuss if it’s possible to accept whatever differences in values remain:
• Your different values might be complementary to each other, rather than in conflict: for instance, a value on being nurturing also supports the value of independence by giving children the sense of a safe base from which they can explore.
• Different values can often coexist, even if one parent puts a higher priority on some than the other parent does. Would it work for one of you to be more the representative of a value in your family than the other parent? For example, in our family, Rick puts a little higher value on orderliness than does Jan, while she puts more of a value than he does on the kids not eating much sugar. We don’t sabotage each other, although we each privately think the other one goes a little too far!
6. Discuss if you can make some kind of deal in which one person’s value rules in one area of your family, while the other person’s value governs in another area. Hypothetically, you could agree to support your partner in prodding the kids to work hard in school if he agrees to lighten up about the way the house looks.
7. If, after these steps, significant conflicts in values remain, consider using a third party as a kind of referee or “tie-breaker.” A.P.P.L.E. FamilyWorks has a good counseling center, and there are plenty of other therapists around as well.
Finish with Actions
Now that you have clarified and narrowed any differences about values, you can tackle differences about parenting practices. The steps are similar, so we’ll describe them more briefly:
1. Acknowledge all the ways you are already parenting consistently.
2. Define clearly where you are (or would like to) parent in different ways. Pin down the disagreement: rather than saying, “You’re totally permissive about sweets,” say “I’m willing for the kids to have dessert at dinner but you’re willing for them to snack in the afternoon, too.” Say back to each other what you think the other person’s position is to make sure it is understood.
3. Discuss with your partner how your views about how parents should act are linked to your values. With empathy and respect, try to explore any apparent inconsistencies — especially within yourself! — between actions and values. See if this discussion can narrow your disagreement.
4. Discuss, with empathy and respect, the childhood or life experiences that you associate to the parenting practices that you differ on. These can add emotional intensity to disagreements, and cloud your perceptions and thinking.
5. Discuss if it’s possible to accept whatever differences in practices remain:
• Your different practices might be complementary to each other, rather than in conflict.
• Different practices can often coexist. For example, it’s not the end of the world if the kids know that one parent is a softer touch than the other one when it comes to some extra pocket money.
• Put the different practices in perspective: Are they that big a deal? Are they worth straining your marriage? Are they harming your kids?
6. Discuss if you can make some kind of deal in which you accept a practice of your partner if he will go along with one of yours.
7. If, after these steps, significant conflicts in practices remain, consider using a third party as a kind of referee or “tie-breaker.” Besides using a therapist, you and your partner could read a book such as Positive Discipline or Raising Your Spirited Child, and mark where you disagree with the book; the remaining, unmarked parts become the standards to which you agree.
Coming Up: How to Share the Load Fairly
In our next column, we will tackle the (often heated) issue of who does what and sharing the load fairly.
This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.