Parenting is hard. And when parents disagree on daily parenting decisions, it's even more difficult. However, parental conflict has its advantages. Children benefit greatly from parents with different strengths, viewpoints and ways of problem solving. It helps them learn that there are multiple ways to handle a situation.

Styles of Parenting

There are three parenting styles: autocratic, permissive and democratic. Conflict between partners is usually caused by differing parenting styles. Problems arise, however, when parenting styles differ so vastly that children cannot sort out what behaviors are acceptable and how their parents will respond to specific situations.

Giving Orders

Parenting with an autocratic style means enforcing with an iron fist a strict set of rules that must be followed. The children have little or no freedom to make their own choices. Autocratic parents control their children's behavior by rewarding the good and punishing the bad behavior. Fear is used to keep children in line. Children of autocratic parents usually become compliant people pleasers or rebellious rule breakers.

Giving In

A permissive parenting style allows the children a great deal of freedom with few or no limits on behavior. Parents who use this style don't want to set limits for fear that their children will become angry, hostile, sad or upset with them. Without limits, children do not learn responsibility and find it difficult to function in the "real" world outside their homes.

Giving Choices

A democratic parenting style allows children freedom within boundaries. Democratic parents set clear expectations and enforce reasonable limits. Children are given choices and experience the consequences of their actions. Children who have some control in their lives are more cooperative and have higher self-esteem. Democratic parents use consequences to teach self-discipline rather than intimidation, fear or punishment to control behavior.

When both parents adopt a democratic parenting style, the children benefit from strong, united leadership within the family structure. However, even when parents agree that presenting a united front is in their children's best interest, daily issues often create conflict between parents. It is not realistic to expect two people to always agree on how to handle things when differences arise.

Here are some topics parents commonly disagree over and respectful ways to handle them.

  • Bedtime Routines

    Studies show that routines help children - and adults - transition from one activity to the next. Bedtime routines help set the stage for a good night's sleep.

    In Mary Watkin's home, there are specific actions she calls "The 4 B's of Bedtime." They include: bath, brush, book, bed. "It's easy for the kids to remember the routine and it keeps us moving in the direction of bedtime," Mary says. But when Mary's husband, Ron, puts the kids to bed, it drives her crazy! "He takes forever to get them into bed, and I stand downstairs seething as the time ticks past 8 p.m.

    Ron is a "go-with-the-flow" type of guy who doesn't like to follow Mary's guidelines. "I like to be more flexible, and if that means straying slightly from the routine, I'm OK with that," he says. "They get to bed, but it might not be exactly the way Mary does it." It doesn't bother him that Mary does bedtime differently, but he doesn't want to be criticized for doing it his way.

    This type of disagreement can be solved by Mary removing herself from the situation when Ron is handling bedtime. He can have his way on those nights, and she can stick to her "4 B's" routine on nights when she is in charge. As long as they are respectful and don't undermine each other, it's perfectly fine that their approaches differ.

  • Meals and Snacks

    Food is often a point of contention between parents. If both parents agree that healthy eating is a priority, the basic foundation is set. Trouble arises when day-to-day choices negatively impact the long-term goal of good nutrition.

    If Mom prefers a mostly vegan diet and Dad is a meat-lovin' chili cook-off champion, dinners could be difficult. One solution for partners is compromise. It might not be practical for the entire family to become vegan and eating steak every night isn't healthy. A compromise could include vegan meals several times a week and red meat on special occasions or at restaurants.

    A similar compromise can be made regarding sweets and comfort foods. In our house, Sunday is "dessert night" with ice cream or other treats. During the week, snacks and desserts appear only in the form of fruit.

  • Homework

    Some parents insist that children complete homework immediately after school, before any form of recreation. That's the way it is in the Rodrigues family -- at least on the days when Dad is home. Marcus claims that if the kids are allowed to play after school, homework never gets done. However, his wife has no problem letting the children play first and do homework later. In fact, she believes it's absolutely necessary for them to have a break after school.

    Many experts agree with her. A recent study published in "The American Journal of Family Therapy" reports that elementary school students are assigned almost three times as much homework as educational leaders recommend. For older students, the findings are similar. Experts suggest that physical activity after school can relieve stress so that kids can better focus on their homework.

    Ask your children for their thoughts on the topic. What works best for them? Some children prefer to do their homework immediately after school. Others want some downtime first. Taking each child's lead on what works for him will help parents avoid the homework conflict.

  • When to Worry

    When parents disagree on how to parent, it creates stress in the home. Some parenting differences can be worked out by sitting down at a calm time and discussing the problem in order to reach a compromise.

    Some issues, however, might require professional help. If partners become hostile, angry or dismissive, it might be time to call in the experts.


Golden Rules of Resolving Parenting Differences

  • Agree to disagree. On some topics, you and your partner might never agree. That's OK. You can model for your children that there are times when fighting just isn't worth the battle. Maintaining a respectful relationship is more important than winning the argument.

  • Talk about disagreements when you are calm. Discuss parenting differences privately and respectfully. Don't try to resolve a conflict in the heat of the moment - it just doesn't work.

  • Be supportive. Even when stressed, don't undermine each other. It's important to present a united front when children are present.


Lynne Ticknor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents and caregivers of children of all ages. For more information, visit PEPparent.org.