My husband and I couldn’t be more different. I am a rule-follower; he likes to break them. I like structure; he is more laidback. This personality dichotomy created a balance in our relationship—until we had our first daughter almost four years ago. We quickly fell into the classic cliché of good cop/bad cop, in which mom (bad cop) always had to lay down the law for bedtime and bad behaviour, while dad (good cop) got to be the one who had all the fun. It created some tense moments in our household.
But different parenting styles aren’t necessarily something to worry about, says Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, and co-author of Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently—Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage. “Children don’t need their parents to be exactly the same, he says.“I think a lot of so-called experts have made a lot of loving and well-meaning parents feel very bad because we have insisted that they must be on the same page,“ he says. “But I’m happy if they are on the same chapter.” In fact, kids will find a way to harmonize this dynamic far better than their parents ever will, he explains.
Still, it’s hard to deal when your partner seems to contradict every decision you make. When Sarah’s three-year-old daughter ran into a parking lot after repeatedly being told to stay closeby, the mom of two took away her TV privileges. But after her husband came home from work that night, he told their daughter that, if she apologized to her mother, they could watch a show together. “He completely undermined what I did,” Sarah says.
Pruett says, in these situations, it’s best to talk things out in private. “You have to have a conversation with each other about why [a situation] is troublesome,” recommends Pruett. He says couples should have a chat that is not accusatory, but simply explains how they felt when the incident occurred. Having some conversations in front of your children can actually be helpful to show them how to resolve disagreements—but only if the conversation stays friendly. In case a contentious situation arises, Pruett recommends agreeing on a signal that you need to discuss the issue later.
Sarah followed this important rule and spoke to her husband later that night when the kids were asleep about him undermining her disciplinarian strategy. “Once I explained to him what was so bad about how he handled that situation, he understood,” she says.
It’s important to keep these discussions respectful—both for you and your kids. “How you communicate as partners is going to make a big difference in terms of the impact it’s going to have on your relationship and the quality of the relationship with your child,” says Mark Eshleman, a registered clinical counsellor, marriage and family therapist and the executive director at Cedar Springs Counselling in Langley, B.C. Babies as young as three months old can sense tension between their parents, says Pruett. “[Kids] get anxious about parents being angry at each other and not treating each other respectfully,” he says. If you do blow up in front of the kids, it’s important they see the apologies afterwards.
While my husband and I might disagree about things like screen time during the week, we agree on the fundamentals of child-rearing, such as raising socially responsible kids and the importance of family time. Some of these things we talked about at length before having kids, but many other parenting decisions are made on the fly and discussed later.
It turns out, how we were parented can have a big impact on how we parent and how we interact with our spouses, who may have been raised very differently. I was raised in a household with lots of structure and high expectations—no television during the week, no sugary cereals, and schoolwork was a top priority. Now that I’m a parent, I find myself giving my kids similar guidelines and rules, sometimes unconsciously. My husband, on the other hand, was raised to be more self-directed and independent, and he treats our kids that way too. For example, instead of telling our daughter not to jump off the couch because she will hurt herself, he will let her figure it out herself, whereas I will step in and tell her that’s not allowed. It causes clashes in the moment—and sometimes these small but uncomfortable disagreements happen multiple times a day. And it drives both of us nuts.
But just because you were raised one way, it doesn’t mean you have to parent that way. “The first step is self-reflection,” says Eshleman. “When we can make sense of our own lives then we can build on the positive experiences we have and move beyond the limitations of our past. We are not completely destined to repeat the patterns of our parents.” Eshleman suggests talking with your partner about why you do some of the things you do and asking them to do the same. Understanding where you both come from, and having a willingness to compromise on differing values can make all the difference. Plus, if parents are able to be self-aware of their own emotions and why they act the way they do, it helps promote healthy development and self-understanding in the child, says Eshleman.
Marriage, especially when you have young kids, isn’t easy. “Marital happiness is especially perilious during toddlerhood and doesn’t recover until practically the end of adolescence,” says Pruett. While that may seem daunting, “it’s actually better to know that this is part of the normal experience and not that you’re headed for a divorce or you have a crappy marriage.” It was strangely comforting that almost every parent and expert I spoke to while writing this story told me that they parent differently than their spouse. My husband and I often laugh about how we can have the exact opposite reaction to things. And while sometimes our differences drive each other crazy, when we’re not disagreeing on something, we also recognize that our kids are lucky to get the best of both worlds.