When Parents Don’t Agree: Tips to Achieve Parental Cohesiveness

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By Maggie Reigh
Special to

I remember looking down at my white-knuckled hand as it held shut the door to my young son’s room. My three-year-old hurled his body against it on the other side, screaming, “Let me out of here! You can’t keep me in here! It’s not fair!” This, I thought, is time out?

Some of you may recognize that passage from the introduction to "9 Ways to Bring out the Best in You and Your Child," and some of you may recognize the sickly feeling that accompanies such a scene as something you’re familiar with. What parent hasn’t wondered from time to time if they are truly doing what’s best for their child and their family? What parent has not questioned their child’s other parent’s approach to child rearing? The only thing worse than watching your children copy the very behavior you abhor in yourself is watching them copy the behavior you abhor in their other parent! How do we change destructive parenting patterns that have been passed down for generations, on both sides of the family?

One tool to reduce your own self doubt in the parenting process and to help you and your spouse or partner parent together more peacefully is to write your vision statements. You can find the process of creating a Vision Statement outlined in the 9 Ways Book.

Take five minutes right now, write down five characteristics you’d like your children to describe you by at your 85th birthday, and then use the sentence stem, “I want my kids to say…” to start you writing. Write it down right now and let your thoughts flow. The idea is not to know what you’re going to say ahead of time but to simply start writing and keep your pen moving all the time. If you stall return to the sentence stem, write it, and let your ideas flow again from that.

Another sentence stem to get you thinking about what’s truly most important is, “I hope my children will develop…” If both parents follow through on these exercises it will give you a starting point from which to discuss what you really want to create. You may be surprised at how similar your deepest wishes for your children are.

Whether you have a partner in parenting or not, keeping the vision of how you’d like to be remembered and the vision of the qualities and characteristics you’d like your children to develop are the most crucial guides to the decisions you make as a parent.

Now I know that some of you may be saying that it’s tough to convince your spouse to take the time to do that. It will still help if you take the time. Then, open a discussion at the "right moment." Remember timing is everything! Discussing what you really want for your children right after your partner has just done something that you disagree with is not likely to end up in anything more than a blame game. Focus on connecting and understanding rather than correcting. Discussion openers may include:

  1. Sharing a tiny piece of your intentions and desires that you hold for your children. Then stop talking and give your partner time to share if he or she chooses to do so. Be careful to listen and not correct your partner’s intentions and dreams! Remain open and curious rather than judgmental. If you want to build a dream together look for similarities rather than differences in your family vision.You’ll probably find that what you both want for your children is remarkably similar.

  2. Ask yourself first if your day-to-day interactions with your child and disciplinary practices will honestly help your child develop the values and characteristics you hope they will develop. As you discuss this and allow yourself to be vulnerable there is a greater chance that your partner will open up honestly. Remember, stay away from blame and judgement or you’ll both go right into defensiveness and that means you will further ingrain the patterns that you don’t want.

  3. Share a quote from a book or a statement you heard that has impacted you and the way you think about raising your children. Many parents have told me that the quotes from "9 Ways to Bring out the Best in You and Your Child" are excellent conversation starters. But once you put them out there, remember to listen and accept another point of view, not correct it!

Throughout your discussions, remember that patterns of parenting have been passed down for generations. Adopt the attitude of a scientist, curious to understand and explore openly and honestly whether or not these patterns are truly working for you in light of what you want for you and your children. As you open yourself to this exploration and share it with your partner, he or she may join in with you¾maybe not at first, but give it time and space to happen.

Try to remove yourself from the patterns, step back and honestly ask yourself if the methodologies your parents used were effective. If they were, by all means strive to emulate them. However, many patterns that we accept and repeat today keep us stuck reacting to what we don’t want and are not creating what we want. For example, when most people think back to being punished, very few recognize the punishment as effective in teaching self-control and responsibility. Most see that it only created resentment, aroused rebellion, or diminished their sense of self and their ability to make amends. Where did we get the idea that if we make someone feel bad, they’ll act better? Does punishment really teach children to act responsibly and not to repeat the "crime" or does it only teach them not to get caught again?

Recognizing the methods of parenting we’ve adopted are not creating what we truly want is the first step toward change. When we can recognize and claim it in ourselves, we open the door for our partner to do the same. Then we can begin exploring and working together to try something new. Then again, sometimes no matter what we do, we don’t seem to be able to come to an agreement about how to raise these beautiful children of ours. If you keep trying to open the door to conversation and cooperation and your partner keeps slamming it shut, sometimes it’s best just to focus on what you will do to create your vision and stop arguing. In the words of stress specialist Roger Mellott, “Stop trying to enlighten the unconscious!”

Ultimately children learn more about life through watching us handle our relationship with their other parent and through our individual relationship with each of them than we can consciously strive to teach them. Consistency is not all it’s cracked up to be. Arguing and creating misery in our relationships for the sake of consistency is a bit like ranting and raving for peace. It’s okay, and can even be advantageous for children to learn how to be in relationships with two very different people. Beware of waiting for your partner to change before you can create the relationship you want with your child. Don’t let your partner’s unwillingness to parent the way you want him/her to be your excuse for not creating the relationship you truly want with your children.

Maggie Reigh has two degrees in education, is an international speaker, storyteller and the author of the parenting book and program "9 Ways to Bring Out the Best in You & Your Child," and creator of the family activity package, "Taking the Terror Out of Temper Tantrums." She specializes in helping people create joyful, positive and meaningful relationships. Access Maggie's Web site for further information.