When Parents Don't Agree

Healthy disagreement, debate, leading to compromise has always been the American way.
—Donald L. Carcieri, governor of Rhode Island

As governor of Rhode Island, Donald Carcieri was talking politics when he made that statement. It is appropriate here, however, because some facets of family life are political: All parties have a stake in the family’s common good. Each parental figure, whether partnered or single or in a blended situation, brings beliefs and approaches to the table—some that overlap, others that don’t. The difference is that, in a family, the conflicts are over issues like bedtime and curfew, not taxation and zoning. It’s especially important that when in disagreement, parents engage in healthy debate and are willing to compromise.

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children of all ages
    • Work on maintaining positive, healthy relationships with the other parental figures in your children’s lives. Then when it comes to dealing with disagreement, you’ll have a strong foundation from which to build.
    • Be as honest as you can with yourself and your child’s other parent about how your childhood experiences influence the way you parent. Talk about what practices you’ll continue and what you wish to do differently. Ask her or him to do the same. Rather than criticize or judge, be open and understanding about how your experiences can be sources of strength more often than they are sources of conflict.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Talk with your child’s other parent about your hopes and dreams for your child. Be aware of your different priorities and areas of emphasis. Don’t try to change one another’s views, just listen.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Talk over your parenting disagreements with your partner in private, away from your children. When you do need to address differences in front of your child, do so with respect and diplomacy. Seeing you argue in a heated way may cause your child to feel stressed or to figure out how to play one of you off the other.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Write down a list of things you appreciate about your child’s other parent. What impresses you? What makes you curious? What makes you laugh? Think about how these things can be parenting strengths.
    • Schedule times to talk with your child’s other parent about shifting boundaries, guidelines, questions, and challenges now that your child is a preteen or teen. Try to address areas of potential disagreement (such as teenage dating and curfews) before your child brings them up.
    • Make a list of issues that are likely to surface (or about which you have strong feelings), such as money (and your values toward it), grades (it’s best to praise the successes before dealing with the challenges), chores (you may expect your children to contribute to the household by cleaning their rooms once a week, while their other parent may be satisfied with an occasional cleaning when kids feel like doing it), and boundaries (such as attitudes toward bedtime routines). Once you’ve made your list, think of ways that you both can be flexible and still have your parenting needs met.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Pick your battles carefully. It is normal for your teen to test boundaries, and that may mean more tension between you and your child’s other parent.
    • It can be helpful to have in mind a hierarchy of boundaries and expectations. Perhaps one of your top priorities is that your children must attend school while they live with you. Second-level priorities might include curfews or attitudes, while lower-level issues might include personal hygiene, types of music played at home, and hairstyles. Sorting priorities can help you decide where to be steadfast and where to offer a bit of wiggle room.
  • Be honest, letting your children know that parents don’t always agree. At this age, you can hold three-way conversations with your children about important issues. Be clear that everyone is to treat each other with respect and kindness.

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