Many divorcing parents worry that their different parenting styles will confuse their children when they encounter different rules in each household. Different views of diet, discipline, bedtimes, homework, risky play, church attendance and choice of friends are but a few of the issues over which newly divorced parents struggle with each other.
And when one parent insists that his/her approach must be adopted in the other household, old resentments can flare and the conflict between different parenting styles can escalate far beyond the issue of bedtime.
Most studies of how children adapt to divorce conclude that the single variable that predicts successful adaptation is the level of conflict between parents.
So when parents routinely square off and fight over issues of what is best for the child, the consequences of the conflict will generally have much greater adverse effects on the child than whether the child goes to bed at 9 or 10, or whether the child is permitted to watch television programs one parent regards as unwholesome.
So it follows that parents need to minimize their attempts to shape or police the parenting styles and practices of the other parent.
I am not suggesting an absolute prohibition on advice or commentary. If a parent routinely engages in parenting behavior that presents a genuine danger or hazard to the child, it is not unreasonable to seek a change.
A parent that chain smokes around a child including when they are in a car together is clearly endangering the health of the child. Here there is a violation of clearly accepted health standards and the other parent is justified is seeking change. Or, if a parent regularly allows a child to stay up until midnight on school nights so that the child is exhausted in school the next day, the other parent is justified in objecting. But if the different parenting styles result in a difference in outlook or philosophy, parents should adopt a hands off approach.
Only when a child is clearly in danger, as defined by generally accepted norms, is intervention warranted.
Even when intervention is appropriate, how it is done can make the difference between reasonable dialogue followed by resolution and an angry exchange that escalates into other conflicts?
The intervening parent should be careful not to trigger old struggles about control and autonomy. How you say it makes the difference: “Tommy’s teacher called today and said he was a mess all day because you let him stay up all night and I’m sick of your juvenile irresponsibility. If he comes home from your house again all exhausted I’m calling my lawyer!”
Consider this statement compared to the following: “Tommy’s teacher called today to say that Tommy was so exhausted he wasn’t able to do his work. She expressed concern whether he was getting enough sleep. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this and how to solve it.”
The latter way of framing the issue states the problem without accusation; the former is framed as an accusation. Which do you think will lead to a fight?
If different parenting styles arise repeatedly chronic issues about the physical or mental health of the child , it is a good idea for the couple to agree on a professional to serve as mediator.
I recall a couple in which the mother was a dedicated devotee of alternate medicine and wanted a clause that the children would not be given antibiotics unless both parents agreed.
The husband disagreed because he feared his wife would refuse antibiotics in situations when they were clearly called for. The resolution was that the couple agreed on a pediatrician and agreed to be bound by her decision. In another disagreement over how much contact a child was to have with the husband’s new girlfriend, the couple agreed to consult a child psychologist and be bound by his advice. Resort to expert opinion can resolve many such disputes arising from different parenting styles.
Finally, it is useful to suggest that a parent can comply with the strong wishes of the other parent not because the other is “right” but out of simple humanity.
I recall a couple that came to see me after their divorce hotly engaged over whether the couple’s 12 year old son should be permitted to ride behind the husband on his motorcycle. The husband had a lifelong interest in motorcycles and wanted to share his passion with his son. He was indignant that the ex wife was trying to control him and insisted he was completely within his rights taking the boy for rides.
The mother was extremely upset insisting that motorcycles were inherently dangerous and that no one, particularly her child, should be exposed to such danger. In a private discussion with the mother I learned that an early boyfriend of hers had been killed in a motorcycle accident many years before and that she was simply terrified of motorcycles. I encouraged her to tell the father about being terrified but to acknowledge that he did have a right to take the boy on his motorcycle.
Then in a private discussion with the husband I posed a question. Assume you have a clear right to ride with your son: Now also suppose that when you do it causes his mother extreme anxiety bordering on panic because of a prior trauma. Is it conceivable that you might accommodate her for a while, not because she is entitled to tell you what to do, but because to do so would be a simple act of kindness and humanity?
Although not all men would have had the sensitivity to agree, this one got the point. He and his ex agreed that the child would not be permitted on the motorcycle until he was 16 years old. The mother thanked the father for his understanding.
I think this event led to a general improvement in the relationship between the two. Your ex-spouse is entitled to the benefit of the doubt when he/she feels strongly and you can accommodate even when you do not have to.
For more about different parenting styles, visit Sam’s website