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When Parents Disagree

By Larry and Susan Kaseman
Stoughton, Wisconsin, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 12 No. 4, July-August 1995, pp. 100-104

Family ties are strengthened when parents agree on basic issues. This is especially important in the area of parenting. While agreeing to disagree on less divisive issues is often the only way to live together peacefully, many parents find that it's worth the effort it takes to work toward solutions when significant disagreements about parenting issues arise.

Many people become parents with little reliable information about children's development, their needs, effective parenting techniques, ways of helping children learn about self-discipline, and so forth. This makes disagreements common. Parents also bring different assumptions, different backgrounds, and different daily experiences to their parenting roles. This increases the likelihood that parents will disagree at times.

Learning About Childrearing

There's a lot to learn about parenting, and one of the best ways to learn about raising children is from the children themselves. Time spent listening to and interacting with them pays rich rewards. Interacting with other families who share a commitment to children and family can also provide valuable information. Oftentimes one parent feels that the other's ideas about issues such as crying, weaning, etc., are unusual or incorrect. These couples can benefit from spending time with a family that has incorporated some of these ideas into everyday life and is comfortable with them. This type of modeling is often less intimidating and more effective than endless arguments about what each believes to be "best.”

Books, too, are a valuable source of information about childrearing. These can be helpful, but it's important to understand that there are many ideas about raising children, and despite the credentials of the author, some very persuasive books are not necessarily in the best interest of the child. Guidance through resources such as LLL can limit the amount of money and time spent reading books that do not support your general ideas about parenting. But even parenting books designated as “good” or recommended by others will not be right for every family.

However, some people are just not "book people." They may learn better in a different way. Fortunately, many other forms of communication are becoming easier to find. This may provide an acceptable alternative to reading books.

Mutual Support

Many parents limit disagreements by recognizing and acknowledging that parenting isn't easy. They regularly remind each other that what they're doing is challenging, demanding, and time-consuming. It helps if parents have patience with each other and give each other as much support as possible, especially since they may not get much support from other people and may get a lot of criticism instead. It is invaluable to have a partner to whom one can say, "I really blew it today. I got so angry the second time Jimmy spilled his juice that I shouted, 'How can you be so stupid!' and stomped out of the room.' It's especially great if the partner is calm and collected enough to be able to respond with, “It sounds like you're feeling frustrated with yourself. But parenting is an enormous challenge, and we can't always do as well as we wish we could. And don't forget the time you spent cuddled together after baths tonight, reading to Jimmy and nursing Sally.” A partner whose attitude conveys such understanding is a treasure, even if he or she does not articulate it quite as well.

Communication

Without getting too tangled up or stuck in stereotypes, some couples begin to work toward an agreement by looking at the general differences in the ways in which men and women communicate. Tine Thevenin, author of Mothering and Fathering, says that "Conflicting ideas about raising children have led to a breakdown in communication between mothers and fathers ... despite their shared goal of rearing emotionally stable children who are prepared for the complexities of the world."

In You just Don't Understand, Deborah Tannen offers similar insights that may be helpful to both sexes. For example, she states that women often want or need time for “trouble talk,” which is to find someone to listen to an experience they've had or a problem they're facing without offering a solution. In fact, it is often upsetting to the speaker if the listener offers a solution, especially if telling the story is interrupted in order to do so. The speaker is looking for empathy and support, not someone to say "Gee, that's too bad. Why don't you just....” In “trouble talk,” such suggestions, however well-intentioned or gently offered, can make the speaker feel small, inadequate, frustrated, and misunderstood. The speaker is simply not ready to begin entertaining a resolution until she's finished telling the story and expressing her feelings about having to deal with it.

In "trouble talk,” often the best response is a simple acknowledgment that the listener is, indeed, listening and understands, at least in part. A response such as “How frustrated you must have felt," if inaccurate, can easily be clarified, often for the speaker as much as the listener, with “Oh, I wasn't frustrated. I was enormously relieved."

Men, Tannen says, often want to jump in with solutions to problems for which they may in some way feel responsible. They hear “trouble talk” as an appeal for help and are confused when their advice is rejected or criticized. Tannen also points out that men are used to hierarchical relationships and use conversation to determine their place in the power structure. Giving advice helps them feel “one up," or in control of the conversation. Women may be more concerned that everyone gets a chance to speak, thus appearing to be more deferential. Again the two communication styles clash.

Improving Communication

Many couples find that time spent strengthening lines of communication and keeping them open is time well spent. Among the possibilities:

  • Keep a long-range perspective. Try not to confuse short-term symptoms and emotions with long-term goals. Many parents try to be clear about what brought them together and what their greater aspirations are so that short-term crises don't become the center of a fight or shut down communication. They may ask, "How much difference will this make in an hour? A day? A week? A year?"
  • Schedule regular times together as a family. Often a walk around the block or a trip to the park will give parents a chance to talk together while children explore and play. Times without television can enhance family togetherness. Some couples make it a practice to reserve for themselves as a couple the time that children are asleep or playing quietly. They are careful not to use such valuable time to pay bills, mop the kitchen floor, or read a report for tomorrow's meeting at work.
  • Find an objective sounding board. Some couples find it helps to have “third party points of reference” to which they can compare their current ideas and differences. Sometimes they talk with a third person whom they both trust and who can act as a mediator and support both parents rather than taking sides.
  • Identify goals. Some couples work together to put in writing the goals they have for the family as a whole and for each individual. This process provides a good opportunity to uncover and discuss differences and at least come to a better understanding of each other and exactly where the conflict lies.

Differences in Daily Experience

Some couples report that some of their disagreements arise from differences in their daily experiences. Two common examples involve staying close to children and long-term nursing. For example, some fathers would like their wives to go out with them, perhaps for a weekend alone, before these mothers feel ready to leave their children. Weaning, too, sometimes becomes an issue on which mothers and fathers have different viewpoints. In both situations, parents' different daily experiences contribute to the disagreement.

If a mother works at home while her husband is employed outside the home, she soon becomes aware of how quickly their newborn recognizes her and how important her presence is to the baby. Since the father has to separate himself from their child every day, it may be harder for him to understand how a baby could need continued contact with one specific person. This is especially true in a culture that minimizes the importance of closeness, interdependence, and the bond between mother and child.

Appreciating the importance of long-term nursing can be even more challenging for a father. Not only does he not experience the physical closeness, emotional satisfaction, and hormonal benefits of nursing that a mother does, he may also feel left out of the nursing relationship and may have trouble supporting what seems to him to be a drain on his wife's time and physical resources.

In addition, societal pressures to make children more independent may be felt more strongly by fathers than mothers. That independence is often defined by physical and emotional separation rather than by strong character and high self-esteem. In many cultures, perhaps even in our own families, separateness is held up as an ideal. Men (and increasingly women) are forced to be competitive and are separated from nurturing support systems: this is often called "independence." Mothers certainly get their share of criticism for their decisions to stay close to their children and continue nursing, but they also get some support as well. Fathers often do not have friends who share their commitment to parenting. They may receive even more pressure than mothers do to find a sitter and get away with their wives "for the sake of the marriage” and to convince their wives to stop nursing.

Parents at home also have much more information about what is happening in the family and time to ponder, process, and evaluate that information while washing dishes or playing with the children. They may be able to find other parents who share their perspectives and commitments about children and families.

This is not to suggest, of course, that being a parent at home is easier, less important, or less demanding than working outside the home. In fact, the opposite is often true. But being at home is different. It presents different challenges, opportunities, and perspectives. When parents recognize the differences in information and perspective that arise from their day-to-day experiences, they are in a better position to appreciate the strengths and limitations of each other's perspectives and to work together toward common family goals.

Personal Assumptions

Disagreements about parenting may spring from the fact that partners have different basic assumptions about health, money, learning, work, socialization, and what makes people happy. These assumptions are so basic, so fundamental to the way people look at life, that people often carry them around without examining them or even realizing that they have such assumptions. People are often surprised to discover their own basic assumptions, those of their partner, and the differences between the two. Identifying these assumptions and putting them into words can increase the understanding people have of themselves and their partners.

For example, a couple may discover that one of them assumes that given the complexities of the human body and the miracles of modern medical technology, professional health care providers are needed to take care of an individual's health. The other may firmly believe that the primary responsibility for assessing and maintaining physical health lies with each individual (with parents taking responsibility for their children until they are old enough to take care of themselves).

Many couples try to divide their differences into separate categories: those on which they have to agree on a course of action (such as where a child will be educated), important principles on which they want to try to come to agreement, and issues on which differences are acceptable although sometimes irritating. (Of course, different couples will put different things in each pile; differences that one couple can tolerate easily may be unacceptable to another.) In the long run, within limits, children and families benefit from having two different parents, each of whom contributes different strengths and perspectives. However, it does feel better to have someone agree with one's own viewpoint, especially someone as close as one's partner. It is one of life's little ironies that the less confident one feels about one's own position, the more important it becomes that others agree.

Cultural Assumptions

In addition to examining their personal assumptions and beliefs, many couples also examine the rules and myths that are fundamental to our culture. Identifying these is not easy, partly because they are not discussed directly. Instead, they have become so intricately woven into our lives that they are taken for granted and communicated in many subtle ways. They are so important that our society does not risk teaching them to people through direct statements, the way people are taught things such as "Look both ways before you cross the street” or "Wash your hands before you eat" or “Say ‘Please.'” It's too easy for people to argue with or ignore direct commands. So basic assumptions are conveyed as unspoken, unexamined, unquestioned fundamental truths.

A couple may want to examine the following assumptions in terms of their personal goals and expectations for themselves and their family:

  • People find their principle meaning in life through participation in the economy and especially through consumption.

    Think about the extent to which people are judged, valued, envied, and emulated on the basis of the clothes they wear, the houses they own, the cars they drive, and the vacations they take.

  • Competition gives people the most meaning from life, and satisfaction can only be found when fighting and winning out over someone else.

    Unfortunately, this often interferes with cooperation, community spirit, and our ability to help each other. It may also contribute to sibling rivalry.

  • To be successful, people need to put work ahead of their families.

    A common assumption is that one's paid employment should come first and family matters should fit into the time and energy left after the demands of a job have been met. Parents are expected to willingly sacrifice the needs of their families when their employer requests it.

  • Rewards that matter do not come through personal relationships. Rewards that matter come through achievements in work and through retirement with its golden opportunities to do what one wants.

    This emphasis on retirement as a reward keeps many people acting on the belief that they should put job ahead of family even when common sense and daily experiences tell them otherwise.

Arriving at a Solution

After discovering some of the sources of their differences, a couple can shift their discussion away from who's right and who's wrong and focus instead on fundamental differences. In a successful relationship the goal is not for one person to win and the other to lose, but to increase understanding and meet everyone's needs. Individuals can explain why they feel the way they do, as well as what personal experiences and other sources of information may have led to the conclusions they have reached. This is most easily accomplished by asking each other questions.

Eventually the couple may move closer to common agreement and choose a course of action on which both can agree. Information that one partner has that the other did not know about may be convincing. They may decide to honor what is important to each of them. They may decide that the person who feels the most strongly about an issue should be the one to make the final decision with the other partner providing support. Perhaps the person most directly involved will get to make the decision. (The one who does most of the shopping or cooks most often gets to decide where the family's vegetables are purchased.) A couple may agree that a given course of action is worthwhile simply because it reassures the one who is most anxious about the problem. (An eye exam may be well worth the cost if one parent is truly worried about potential vision problems.)

Whatever solution is reached, the basic goal is to break the cycle of endless fruitless discussion. (There's a scene in a play where one spouse says to the other something like: "We've had this discussion so many times I bet it goes on in the room when we're not even here.") Instead, couples try to identify the source of their differences, listen to each other, and find a basis for resolving some of their differences.

Conclusion

Spending time and energy on handling disagreements is a good investment. Often the benefits are invisible because they're preventive. Families who have worked hard to establish and maintain good relationships may find that they avoid some hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and mistakes. Prevention is impossible to document and a lot less dramatic than problems and solutions, but it also causes less heartache. When parents do encounter problems, they already have in place a strong foundation on which to build responses to the challenges. Problems may draw a family together, but good communication cannot be created overnight if the need arises. It must be built, step by step, over time. When it is, everybody benefits.

Suggested Reading

Armstrong, Thomas. In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child's Personal Learning Style. Tarcher, Los Angeles CA, 1987. Good insights into differences in learning styles.

Coloroso, Barbara. Kids Are Worth It! William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York NY 1994. A wealth of information and support on parenting children from babies through teens. Available from LLLI and many public libraries.

Faber, Adele, and Elaine Mazlish. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Rawson Wade, New York NY, 1980. Audio cassette also available. Outstanding suggestions for improving communication with children of any age (and adults, too). The authors have also written Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too (NY: Avon, 1987). All available from LLLI.

Holt, John. Learning All the Time. Addison-Wesley, Redding MA, 1989. Wonderful insights into how children learn and grow, and how adults can help them.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand. Morrow Publishers, New York NY, 1990. Discussion of differences in the ways in which men and women communicate and view the world.

Thevenin, Tine. Mothering and Fathering. Avery Publishing Group, Garden City Park NY, 1993. Provides an insightful look at the common differences in parenting views.

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