Co-parenting guidelines: what to do when parents disagree

We’ve all heard “it takes a village to raise a child”. Surely, it takes a village full of hands and more time than any one person has in a day but what we really want is everyone else to do it OUR WAY! That’s heaven – one person, knowing what’s best, making all the right decisions, and everyone else in unanimous agreement! Does that sound like your house? I didn’t think so.

In the real world, you have to cooperate and sometimes you must negotiate between two completely different points of view. Your child then gets the benefit of different approaches to life, different personalities, different strengths, and different goals. Unfortunately, you have to give up any pretense that there is a single right way to teach your child. I have for you – the following three co-parenting guidelines that will help when you are ready to strangle someone you love.

The first co-parenting guideline is: Whoever speaks first, rules.
In a two-parent household, that means that whichever parent begins the discipline, right or wrong, has complete domain to carry it through. This principle still remains true when parents are living separately. The “ruling” parent must maintain authority in the situation and must experience the effectiveness of his choices. Even when the “ruling” parent is making less than ideal choices, a second parental voice won’t improve effectiveness. It only undermines that parent in the eyes of the child. So imagine yourself in the next room hearing your daughter “work over” her mother with sugar-coated pleas to stay up a little later, and later and later. You may already know that mom is feeling guilty about being away on business all week and she dearly wants to make your daughter happy. This principle reminds you – bite your tongue, especially while this scene is unfolding.

The second co-parenting guideline is: Talk about parenting strategies with your partner in a neutral setting.
Plan for a “family discussion” at least one day a week – after the children are asleep or possibly over a glass of wine. Now, I don’t usually advocate drinking to improve your parenting skills but, sometimes, it sets the tone for relaxed discussions and even a little laughter. Parent problem solving needs to occur in non-threatening settings where parents can openly examine mistakes and past choices. Criticism should be as constructive as possible because parenting is such an emotional task. This is the time to ask for your partner’s perception of the situation mentioned in the earlier example. If she is comfortable with the behavior, you need to stand by until she recognizes the problem. This does not mean you need to tolerate the same behaviors your partner tolerates, which leads us to the next co-parenting guideline.

The third co-parenting guideline is: children are capable of following different rules in different settings without compromising the value of the rule.
While consistency is important, it is not realistic that all adults will think or respond exactly the same way. Fortunately, children are very adaptive at following different expectations in different settings. It is important to be consistent within those settings and within ourselves. It is equally important that your child does not “work” the adults against one another (that takes you right back to guideline #1). In a household where dad tolerates whining and mom does not, mom could calmly explain to the child that she will not discuss anything while the child is whining and ask the child to let her know when he is ready to speak appropriately. In no time at all, mom will make an enormous difference in the child’s behavior. Dad may like the results so well that he might consider changing his behavior too. But that would ultimately remain his choice.

Cooperation helps with all key adults who share in the care of your child: parents, grandparents, teachers, doctors, and friends. You need the skills of a recruiter to win the confidence of your team and the diplomacy of a politician to speak on sensitive issues. It isn’t always easy to convince a grandmother to follow your feeding requests or to “allow” dad to do baths his way. But if you follow the co-parenting guidelines, you can maintain mutual respect for one another as adults and take advantage of the influence and help others can give you.


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