Blending Your Parenting Styles
s your wife a strict disciplinarian, while you prefer to let things slide? Is your husband a screamer, and you're an "inside voice" kind of mom? When you have different parenting styles, it can often feel like you're at odds with your spouse. "My husband doesn't seem to see half of what our son does," laments Christine Richards, a mom in suburban New York. "I don't want him to grow up badly behaved, so I end up being the heavy."
Have a good cop/bad cop situation brewing in your home? Here are strategies from Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam), for navigating this common parenting conundrum:
Avoid sweeping the problem under the rug To raise a happy, well-behaved child, it's crucial to try to find common ground, says Dr. Karp. Otherwise, your little one gets a mixed message and quickly "learns who they can get away with more with." So if you don't want your child playing you against your mate, it's best to tackle your discipline differences right away. Once a month, hold a "parents only" meeting with your spouse. This is your chance to be honest about what concerns you about each other's styles. "Write down two or three things each," advises Dr. Karp. "You and he get a turn without interruption. The only ground rule is you both have to listen with respect and speak with respect." Your goal isn't to sway each other, but to ultimately come up with some guidelines for your kids that you both feel comfortable enforcing.
Don't show dissention in front of your child "Kids look at us as a loving and safe force in their lives," Dr. Karp explains. "Seeing [parents] arguing, especially about them, shakes [kids] to their foundation." A child might get angry or frightened, and feel like they're the "cause" of the parents' problems -- which lowers their confidence and self-esteem. Sure, it's hard to sit back and watch your spouse laugh while your preschooler takes the purple crayon to your freshly painted cream walls, but resist the urge to roll your eyes or slam his laissez-faire approach to limit-setting.
Find creative ways to compromise Let's say it drives you crazy that your husband yells at your child when she exhibits normal toddler behavior, like sticking her hand in the cat's food bowl or pulling away from you while walking on the sidewalk. It drives your husband nuts that you're lax about situations that could put your child at risk for physical harm. Try to decide together that it's okay for him to raise his voice when Katie's darting toward traffic -- because after all, that could be dangerous -- as long as he tries to distract her before scolding her for mild, age-appropriate infractions.
Keep family members out of it "Don't bring up each other's family," says Dr. Karp. For instance, avoid making remarks like, "Of course you yell and scream -- you're just like your father." Besides being disrespectful, this behavior forces your partner into a defensive mode, making it harder to move forward and find the best approach for parenting the children.
Embrace a little bit of difference "It's crazy to expect all the adults in a child's world to react exactly the same way," says Dr. Karp. In fact, by maintaining a dash of your individuality -- even when it comes to discipline -- "you're teaching your child emotional intelligence -- they learn what they can expect from one adult versus another -- and that's a good thing," explains Dr. Karp. Sure, it can be tricky to find the right balance, but keep in mind that the hard work of getting on the same page (more or less) will improve your connection as a couple. "When you're able to successfully discuss parenting differences," notes Karp, "it strengthens your marriage and builds feelings of trust and respect."
Lisa Lombardi is a writer and editor based on Larchmont, New York. She is a mother of one, with one on the way.
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