When your parenting style differs from that of your partner, tensions can run high.
Take the case of Leigh Henry, 37, of San Antonio, Texas. Leigh doesn't always agree with her husband, Ryan, also 37, on how best to parent their toddler and preschooler. Ryan, an attorney, makes "empty threats," she explains. "He'll threaten to not take our son on a promised adventure if he doesn't behave -- or to leave him in a store. But he won't really do it. He believes that's OK because that's how he was raised." Stay-at-home mom Leigh, conversely, believes in following through on consequences and can't bear the idea of threatening to abandon a child in a public place.
Her dilemma isn't unusual. Many couples differ on the best way to raise children and are often surprised at how strongly they feel about the matter. "Most of the couples I see who have children have differences in parenting styles," says Barbara Frazier, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Gainesville, Fla. "It's really a matter of how great the difference is," says Frazier, who also founded The Successful Parent web site.
Three Kinds of Parenting Styles
Family counselors divide parenting styles into three categories: authoritarian (a parents-know-best approach that emphasizes obedience); permissive (which provides few behavioral guidelines because parents don't want to upset their children); and authoritative (which blends a caring tone with structure and consistent limit-setting).
In an ideal world, both parents have an authoritative style, because that's what fosters the healthiest relationships. What makes differences in parenting styles particularly hard is they often stem from forces that are "largely unconscious," Frazier says. "Some people study up on parenting before they have kids. And some consciously work against what their own parents did. A lot more people unconsciously act out exactly what they saw their own parents doing.
"Having differing parenting styles can be a good thing," she adds, "as long as styles aren't too far apart. This gives children a wider view of grown-up values and a chance to have a special relationship with each parent. As long as parents come together as a united front, it's healthy."
Leigh and Ryan aren't yet entirely united. But "we've been working on offering the kids clear messages about what we expect from them and what the consequences will be," she says.
Coping With Different Parenting Styles
What can couples with different parenting styles do to help their kids thrive? Frazier offers moms and dads these pointers:
Get counseling. A professional therapist can help both parents understand how their upbringing drives their parenting styles, as well as how to handle disagreements in a healthy way.
Keep the kids out of it. Asking children to take sides -- or arguing in front of them -- is incredibly destructive, Frazier says. Instead, agree to disagree later, when the kids are out of earshot.
Read all about it. Frazier recommends Between Parent and Child by Haim G. Ginott, MD, and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, PhD, with Joan Declaire.