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What To Do When Parents Don't Agree About Parenting By Judy Banfield

What to Do When Parents Don’t Agree About Parenting

When it comes to parenting, it can be a shock to find out that you and your partner are not on the same page about how to raise your children – let alone even in the same book.

Scenario #1 – My son was having a really rough time. He was very upset and crying and yelling. I was talking him through it, acknowledging feelings, being there for him – all the stuff I’ve learned is important, when all of a sudden, my partner comes along, swoops up my son, and says “Enough already. Into your room. It’s “time out” for you.” I was furious. I felt totally disrespected, disempowered and very frustrated. This happens a lot and we don’t seem to get anywhere talking about it.

My partner says “we each have our way of doing things.” It feels to me more like we each have our way of un-doing things.

Scenario #2 – The baby was crying. She’d been fed, her diaper was changed, she was “supposed to” be fine. My partner lay her down in her crib after feeding her, patted her gently then walked away.

“She’s unhappy”, I said.

“She’s fine”, my partner said.

“But look at her,” I said. “She’s crying loudly. That is not fine.” So I went and picked her up. She immediately stopped crying. “See,” I said. She just wants to be held”.

“What I see”, my partner said, “is a baby who is being spoiled”, and then angrily walked away.

I was stuck. Whatever I did made one of them miserable.  

Scenario #3 – My friend had given us a big box of Lego for our son, who just turned two. Our son and I were sitting on the floor together, playing with them. My partner walked in and looked totally shocked.”Are you letting him play with Lego? Don’t you know that’s a “Not for under 3 years old “toy? It has tons of small parts. He could swallow one and choke. This is not okay!” Then my partner swooped in, gathered up the Lego back into the container, muttering “Don’t you have any sense of safety?” I had to comfort our crying son who’d been having a great time, just playing with the little pieces.

My partner is so uptight. Almost everything that’s fun is “too dangerous”. How will our son learn to be in the world if we protect him from everything?

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

These conversations and conflicts play themselves out time and time again in many families. They are often unresolved and the same issues surface over and over again leading to frustration and unhappiness between couples.

Even though you were both thrilled to become parents, you had no idea that one of the biggest challenges you would face, was not so much dealing with your children, but dealing with each other and your views and beliefs about parenting.

Why do parents so often disagree about parenting?

There are many reasons. Life experience, personality differences, how you’ve watched your friends raise their kids, how much reading you’ve each done or not done, what you’ve each been reading, you’re philosophies of life (we all have one even if we don’t know it), your pre-baby lifestyles, your cultural backgrounds, your educational backgrounds etc.

On top of those factors, the most significant one that has the biggest impact on the “great Divide” between parents comes from how you were each raised or parented in your own families and what life was like in the families you were each raised in.

We are drawn to people who on some level remind us of our parents or who are “absolutely not like our parents”,  but really are.

Harville Hendrix (a well-known relationship therapist) says:

“When we are ready for adult commitment, more often than not, our unconscious mind selects someone who has positive and negative traits similar to those of our parents in order to have another chance to heal ourselves. All too often, though, we end up reliving the patterns that hurt us in the first place. And as we did when we were children, we let our frustrations be known—only this time, we express the pain with criticism. We use negative transactions to try to effect positive outcomes. It never works.”

It’s a common saying in relationships that “opposites attract”. Sometimes it’s very obvious. One partner may be quiet, the other outgoing. One is pretty laid back, one is high energy. One is open and expresses their feelings easily, one keeps their feelings close and under wraps. One likes things in their place in the house, and one is comfortable with clutter… and so on.

We say that our partners complement us, or that they embody and express aspects of ourselves that we are not comfortable with and we wish we could develop.

We find the differences between us compelling, charming, sexy… and we fall in love.

As a couple, before you had kids, you learned to adjust to your differences. There might have been some tense moments when your differences conflicted, but you worked it out.

But, once a baby comes along, your differences intensify.

You are both under tremendous stress. The level of responsibility you have for the well-being of this tiny helpless being can be overwhelming. Life has been turned upside down. You are both exhausted, you are both unsure of what you are doing.

The way you divided and handled cooking, cleaning, shopping, finances, time alone, time together, friends, in-laws, etc.has all changed.

And you have to make decisions… split second decisions…

What do you do when the baby cries? Are they hungry? Cold? In pain? Lonely? Frightened? Tired?

And if they keep crying….what do you do? Just do something, but what!? Should you feed them, rock them, walk them, take them outside, lie them down, go for a car ride? What did they say in prenatal class? What does that book say? Look it up on the internet. Call your mom. Should we go to the hospital?

You are both under pressure – and when we are under pressure and stressed and tired, we revert to our most basic selves. We revert to our more childish selves.

And when that happens, you start arguing about how to respond to your baby.

You realize that you never really discussed how you would parent, how you would react to the reality of raising a human being together.

Then you start arguing about things that were not issues before. And the differences between you which you found so charming and attractive are not so attractive or charming anymore.

Suddenly, when you most need to be in step with each other, supporting each other, making choices together, you are in conflict with each other.

Of course, this puts a terrible strain on your relationship and research and statistics show that the arrival of a baby can be the beginning of the decline in the quality of relationships.

Once you are in that place of overwhelm, stress, pressure, exhaustion coupled with the pain and loneliness, you each revert to what I call your “default parenting mode” – the way each of your parents parented you. And, most likely, the differences between you reflect the differences in the way you were each parented, and you end up, as I said before, not only not on the same page, but not even in the same book.

Rather than being there for each other, you turn on each other.

The differences in “default parenting” styles do not go away over time. Unless you address them together to understand where these unconscious parenting styles come from, they will be an ongoing source of conflict between you, and ultimately, confusing for your children.

So what can you do to make things better, and not worse?

This situation with your partner is not uncommon; the strains of having a new baby wear on almost every couple, as do the strains of parenting generally. Knowing you are not the only ones going through this normalizes the situation.

How you come through it, however, is not an accident. It takes consciousness, honesty, effort and commitment.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk to each other when things are calm.
  • Be real about how you are feeling without blaming or shaming the other. It’s ok to say you feel lost or overwhelmed, or scared, or that you need help.
  • Use “I” messages when you talk to each other.
  • Acknowledge that you have differing views on parenting.
  • Acknowledge that you are having difficulty in your relationship.
  • Take parenting courses together.
  • Read parenting books that encourage positive, connected parenting.
  • Enroll in group or individual parenting coaching.
  • If your relationship is floundering go for couples counseling.
  • Make a commitment to make things work.

Dig deep into your own childhoods. This can be difficult and sometimes painful but bringing things into the light always helps. Here’s a very helpful exercise that I strongly recommend that you do with your partner to help you with this process: Questions for Parental Self Reflection

Remember, you are not alone in this. I urge you to “get on the same page” and “in the same book” and work towards a happy and loving relationship with your partner.

And when you love each other, your children will love you for it.

If you have any questions about this blog or parenting, feel free to contact me. I’m here to help.

I’ve listed articles below (my blog posts and others) that provide you with some tools to keep your relationship alive and well. Read them together with your partner.

Oh Yeah, You’re Still Here: Sex and Romance After Pregnancy – Judy Banfield

Are you still my valentine? How to rekindle the romance after having kids – Judy Banfield

Why Are We Attracted to the People We Are? – Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.

The Marriage Repair Kit – Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt

10 Steps to Effective Couples Communication – Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.

Judy Banfield

I’m Judy Banfield and I’m here to help you feel better about yourself as a person and more confident and secure as a parent.

In my 30+ years of working with babies, young children and parents, I have learned that valuing and treasuring and deeply knowing yourself gives you the foundation to more confidently and joyfully, love, treasure, teach and guide your children.

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