At some point, every couple will disagree on how they should be raising their children. But if we can manage our disputes in a constructive way, they can actually serve to strengthen our marriage and clarify our approach to parenting.
Does this sound familiar?
Your husband has just spoken some strong words to your oldest son, and told him he is lazy and doesn’t help enough around the house. You know that your son is feeling overwhelmed by his school work and by some recent conflicts with his friends. You worry that being labelled “lazy” will impact your son’s self-esteem.
Or maybe . . .
During bedtime, your youngest daughter keeps asking for one more story, cuddle, drink and so on. Knowing that she needs some extra reassurance after a particularly emotional day, you keep going to her. Your husband expresses his frustration and tells you that you are indulging your daughter and stopping her from learning good sleep habits.
Disagreements about parenting style are a completely normal part of family life. But these disagreements bring out some of our strongest feelings—our deeply-held hopes and fears for our children, tangled up with our own childhood experiences—and so they can become particularly personal and emotional.
It's time to stop battling with these seven tips that will save your marriage even when parenting seems to be pulling you apart.
(At this point, it’s important to say that it takes two people to work on a marriage. If your spouse is not committed to communicating and resolving conflicts in an honest and respectful way, then it will be difficult to put the advice of this article into practice. You may need to seek professional counselling, either individually or together (if possible).
In this world, some marital conflict cannot be healed despite our best efforts; we may not be able to provide our children with the positive family life we had hoped for. No matter what our situation, we can entrust our children to God knowing that He, our perfect, strong and loving Father, can somehow turn the hard things into good things. In the Bible, there are many children—even in Jesus’ own family tree—who grew up in messy, less-than-ideal families, but were raised up by God to great things. We can only strive to be faithful in our own relationships and look to God to provide our children with the things we can’t offer them.)
1. Put your marriage first
Resolving our parenting differences starts with a commitment to pursue a healthy, unified marriage above all. Raising children is demanding—it consumes huge amounts of our time, energy and emotion. Sometimes, without realising it, we can turn around to find that “husband and wife” have become simply “mum and dad” and we’ve stopped giving our spouse—and our relationship—the attention they deserve.
Resolving our parenting disputes is hard and painful work, but it’s worth it. A healthy and lasting marriage, where conflicts are resolved in a constructive way, is not only good for us, but also for our children. It provides a firm foundation for their development in the present and a positive model for them to copy in the future.
2. Identify your feelings
A good starting point when we are upset by our spouse’s behaviour is to recognise how we are feeling and, if possible, why we are feeling that way. Often, we react strongly when a situation triggers something from our own childhood—our spouse may have done something that was a real “no-no” in the family we grew up in or they may have acted in a way that reminds us of our parents in a very negative way. There is often much more going on under the surface of our disputes than we realise.
For example, I grew up in a family where voices were never raised. Disagreements were usually just brushed off with a laugh or an eye-roll (that is, until they were brought up again six months later). So in the early days of marriage, I would get very upset if my husband raised his voice even in excitement. I thought he was “shouting”, but in reality he was just getting passionate about something that he valued.
3. Don’t think the worst
When our spouse does or says something that we disagree with, we often think the worst of them. We imagine that we can see the situation clearly while they have made a wrong judgement. It’s natural for us to react strongly when it comes to the topic of parenting—we all want the very best for our family—but often we can’t see the bigger picture straight away.
We can start to turn the situation around by trying to think the best of our spouse, giving them the benefit of the doubt. In all likelihood, they weren’t deliberately being nasty or overindulgent; they probably had an understandable reason for doing or saying what they did.
4. Ask, don’t assume
Instead of assuming that our spouse behaved the way they did because they were being unreasonable, it’s much fairer simply to ask them. If we make an accusation, our spouse will shut down and become defensive, but if we ask a question, it gives them a chance to explain themselves.
In the scenarios mentioned above, each person had a good reason for doing what they did. If you asked the father in the first example, he would say that he wasn’t being harsh—he was trying to challenge his son in an honest “man-to-man” talk, to take up his responsibilities around the house. His priority was to make sure that his wife was not left to do all the housework.
In the second scenario, if your husband had taken the time to ask, you could have told him that you were simply trying to show gentleness and patience towards your daughter in her time of need.
5. Have a good conversation . . . later
If we disagree with a parenting decision that our spouse has made, we should avoid criticising or contradicting them in front of our children. This undermines their authority and your unity as a team. It’s best to make a time to talk later on, when we are calmer and can see the situation more objectively.
A good, fair conversation involves listening to our spouse without jumping in to correct them or defend ourselves. Each person should have the chance to freely express their feelings and their point of view. Once you have heard each other’s perspective, you can establish some goals for your family and plan some realistic steps to get there. This might involve some negotiation and compromise; ideally, you will both have “homework” to do.
6. Appreciate your differences
Conflicts over parenting often arise because we expect our spouse to relate to our children in exactly the same way that we do. In our modern world, with its emphasis on gender-neutral language, we forget that in general, mothers and fathers are quite different. Mothers tend to have a more nurturing approach to parenting that focuses on creating a close attachment with their children. By contrast, fathers tend to have a more challenging approach to parenting that focuses on fostering their children’s independence. The scenarios described above are typical of these tendencies.
But the truth is that children need all of these things. They need both nurture and challenge; attachment and independence. We can learn to appreciate rather than criticise our spouse’s approach because it balances out our own.
In addition to our gender differences, we also bring different personalities and family backgrounds to our parenting. Taking the time to learn about these things helps us to understand and love each other better. It is challenging to live and parent with someone who is very different from us, but appreciating our differences can enrich our marriage and help us to work as a unified, but complementary team.
7. Remember your shared vision and values
The final principle in managing our parenting disagreements is to remember what we have in common. Usually, both parents share the same hopes and fears, goals and expectations for their children in the long-run; they just have different ideas about how they will get there.
When we come across a difference in our approach, it can help to sit down together and clarify our family goals and values.
- How do we want our family to be the same as or different from the families we grew up in?
- What are the qualities that we want to characterise our family?
- What kind of people do we want to be and raise?
- What are the “non-negotiable” issues and which ones can we compromise on?
Having this kind of “big picture” conversation with our spouse will (hopefully) remind us that the things we have in common far outweigh our differences. Clarifying what we value and where we are headed as a family makes a great starting point for negotiating the disagreements that come up. We can stand side-by-side, facing the obstacles as a team, rather than letting our differences pull us apart.
Working through our parenting disagreements is hard—it takes great perseverance, patience, honesty, grace and humility. But if we can resolve our conflicts in a healthy way, it will benefit not only us and our marriage, but also our much-loved children.