Seven o'clock rolls around. In our household, that means the bedtime ritual begins: Jammies. Brush teeth. Our favorite book. And then...drift off to sweet dreams and counting sheep?
Ha! Not for us.
Picking out jammies becomes a game of cat and mouse. My husband chases our son. I'm chasing my husband. Brushing teeth becomes an Olympic event—and judging by the snail's pace at which we complete this task, we're not taking home a gold medal any time soon.
Finally, we sit, we snuggle and we read. And then we read again. And then the "one mores" begin. "Just one more time. Just one more book. Just one more minute!"
Before I know it, one more minute has turned into an hour. Emotions are high, tears are brimming, and yes, there is yelling.
My husband thinks we need to be more firm. "Let's put him in time-out or take away something he likes, like reading time," he suggests.
"What about respecting our son's needs and emotions?" I counter.
And just like that, my husband and I are locked in a power struggle too.
With such different ideas about how best to manage our son's champion sleep fighting tendencies, is there any hope for us to parent from the same page?
How do you find middle ground when you and your partner disagree about parenting?
My hope was that my husband and I would one day be able to meet in the middle, parenting together with a shared set of clear, firm boundaries while still validating our child's emotions.
Bridging different parenting styles
I think my partner is too harsh, where my partner thinks I'm too soft.
My partner prefers a strict routine, where I prefer spontaneity.
My partner is not comfortable with big emotions, whereas I raise the roof on making space for feelings.
According to Dr. John Gottman, when two people have children, a cross-cultural experience occurs. Each parent brings forth a different set of beliefs based upon how they were raised. "We all come into relationships with our belief systems from our upbringings," says Burnaby, BC, clinical counselor Allison Bates. "But it doesn't always mean it's the best way to raise your family."
William Doherty, in The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, writes that when a new family system is set into motion, partners have the opportunity to re-evaluate beliefs and values to create a chosen culture within their tribe. The more intentional that culture is, the more the tribe thrives.
The scientific case for consistency
The way we co-parent can greatly impact our family dynamics. Children are concrete learners who thrive on consistency, boundaries, and rituals. Inconsistencies in parenting practices can send mixed signals, leading to confusion and more acting out.
When children do not feel safe or when they feel that their environment is unpredictable, they may resort to brainstem behaviors of fight, flight or freeze, resulting in more power struggles and misbehaviors. In more extreme cases, "uncoordinated child-rearing," as it's sometimes called in the literature, can also create anxiety or depression.
What to do when you disagree on parenting
Start by putting these six tips into motion:
1. Create emotional and physical safety
It's important that both parenting partners feel safe and heard, even during a disagreement. To clear a path for safe communication, ask open-ended questions and then pause to hear what your partner has to say.
According to the Gottman Institute, completing and talking about the following statements as a couple can help evoke safety and connection, a great first step to co-parenting:
- I feel that you are a good parent because ____.
- I feel that my role as a parent is to ___.
- It's most important to me for our child to be ___.
- My goal in raising our child is ___.
2. Listen actively
Although it can be challenging, it helps to commit to actively listening—to really hear one another, even when you disagree with what the other person is saying.
This tip helped me shift my goal from convincing my husband to see things my way, to actually listening to what he had to share without feeling that my differing views were under attack. Instead, I validated his emotions, just as I was hoping we could do as a couple for our child.
It helped for me to remember that his reality is very real to him, just as my perspective is real and valid to me. And although I may not have agreed with what he was saying, in listening to him, I was learning. Every opportunity is a growing opportunity. In embracing this mindset, we are brought closer to one another instead of further apart.
I realized that the ultimate goal was not for me to win the argument but to find our middle ground. This shift in our thinking proved vital. We made it our mission to co-parent in a way that respects our shared values and beliefs.
3. Create a shared vision
We sat down and we defined our long-term goals for our family. We discussed the desired rules and boundaries and why we felt that they were important. Talking through these sharing prompts helped us recognize how our different parenting styles aligned with our sometimes differing goals:
- My parents were ___ and I feel that was ___.
- To me, discipline means ___.
- What are our parenting strengths (individually/collectively)?
- The approach to parenting that I most align with is ____ because ____.
Here, we took the larger, shared vision we had for our family and focused on addressing the recurring, high-stress situations we were dealing with, like bedtime. Together, we became curious as to why certain behaviors were arising from our son.
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, invites co-parents to ask these questions:
- Why did our child act this way (What was happening internally/emotionally)?
- What lesson do we want to teach?
- How can we best teach it?
Answering these questions actually helped us find our common ground.
5. Embrace differences
We began to realize that this was not a clear case of right and wrong and that, as a couple, we didn't have to have the same strengths to be effective co-parents. And slowly, our parenting power struggles at bedtime lessened—and so did our child's.
6. Be a united front
It is highly unlikely that you will agree with every single parenting decision your partner makes. But as long as you are not concerned with abuse or neglect, be a united front in the presence of your children. Undermining your co-partner in front of your children diminishes both of your authority and sends the message that there is a way around parenting decisions. Discuss your feelings in private and re-visit as a united pair.
What if your co-parent is not interested in same-page parenting?
Despite having the best of intentions, ultimately, we cannot force change on someone who does not want to change. When both partners continue to hold different ends of the tug of war rope, asking for help from an outside party can be useful. Parenting coaches, couple's counseling or online parenting courses can help co-parents reach compromise.
So, how did we fare? Well, somewhere along the way, my husband and I put down our weapons, leaned into a few shared goals, and slowly, we started to find some common ground.
As for our little champion sleep fighter? Well, he's still a champ, but as our rituals became more consistent, and my husband and I more united, our son has shifted too.
And though I'm fairly certain my husband and I will never parent from the exact same page, I feel hopeful, because "same" is not my goal anymore.
A version of this post was originally published on Generation Mindful.