When Parenting Styles Clash

Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on September 02, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

You give your kids what they want for dinner, but your spouse tells them they have to eat what the adults are eating. You don’t want your kids playing with toy guns, but their other parent wants to lead the charge in a big game of cops and robbers. Do you wonder about the mixed messages you’re sending your kids?

Relax. Your different styles could be a good thing. As long as both parents regularly discuss your positions, decisions, and concerns, you can raise well-adjusted kids,

“I like to talk about having parents being on the same chapter, because being on the same page is a little much to ask,” says Kyle Pruett, MD, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and co-author of Partnership Parenting.

“I think the problem comes when parents aren't able to compromise,” says family therapist Lisa Dunning, author of Good Parents Bad Parenting. “They're so rigid: 'My way is right. Your way is wrong,' and they're not willing to work on a happy medium.”

Here’s some advice for parenting together with different styles.

Make Some Decisions in Front of the Children

It’s OK for you and your partner to disagree respectfully about small matters when the children are around. It's helpful for them to listen to you find solutions together, using calm voices and facts, rather than emotions.

“One thing we need to teach our kids is how to problem-solve when we disagree,” Dunning says. “A lot of kids don't know how to compromise because they don't see their parents doing it.”

Agree to Disagree on Small Issues

You can't control every situation, so learn to accept the fact that things will go differently when your partner is in charge.

“Moms may say, 'No sledding on that hill, ever,' or 'No skateboarding,'” Pruett says. “Dads often allow a little more risk-taking. It's more important for parents to agree about [bigger] safety issues like seat belts and holding hands while crossing the street.”

Support Each Other in Front of the Children

Know which issues each of you aren't willing to compromise on, like safety and curfew, and agree to be flexible about other ones.

If your partner has made a big decision you don’t agree with, let him know in private.

“It's very important that parents do not criticize or blame the other parent,” says family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Kids need to know parents support each other, love each other, and are a united team.”

“If Johnny needs to go to bed early, and the other parent thinks, 'I don't agree,' and behind Dad's back says, 'Come out and watch a little TV,' it undermines the other parent's authority to the kids,” Dunning says. “It will cause problems in parenting and eventually the relationship of the couple.”

Be Positive When Kids Question Differences

If your children wonder aloud about your different parenting styles, let them know it’s OK that you don’t agree on everything, and that it may help you both parent more effectively.

Aim for Consistency After A Split

If you and your partner separate, it’s good to maintain some of the same rules in each house, such as homework and bedtime routines. But that’s not always possible, especially if you aren't on good terms with your ex. Remind yourself that you can control only what happens in your household, and make sure your children know what you expect from them.

“It's best for the parents to be honest with the children, saying something like, 'At Mommy's house, bedtime is earlier than at Daddy's,'” Walfish says.