Parenting as a Team Can Make You Both Better Parents
As a marital therapist, I often hear from couples asking for a joint session where they can address their conflicts and communication breakdown. When I meet them in person, I realize what sometimes seems like a problem in their communication goes far beyond. Conflicts that begin over how to discipline a child end up as a spousal battle. Our inability to find a common ground and navigate how to parent together can become a huge crisis.
Coparenting is an important area that influences children’s emotional and social development. Jeanis Talbot and James P. McHale, Ph.D.s, define coparenting as “an enterprise undertaken by two or more adults working together to raise a child for whom they share responsibility.” This definition can include married couples raising their child together, divorced couples, or even two people who never married, but have a child. In this article, I focus on married couples who are raising their children together, and provide some parenting advice toward parenting as a team.
Steps toward parenting as a team
Discuss your childhoods.
Parenting as a team means navigating such childrearing pitfalls as choosing a parenting style, degree of involvement both parents have with the child, ability to working as a unit, and finding middle ground. A client once told me about his childhood in an authoritarian family in which his father took all the decisions and discipline was of utmost value. His wife, on the other hand, was brought up in a family where children were given everything they wanted, with a permissive parenting style with very few rules. When it came to parenting their own children, the couple was in constant disagreement and at their wits’ end. Their personal childhood baggage had shadowed their values, beliefs and perceptions about parenting.
I suggested they talk to each other about their own childhoods. Talking openly with our spouses about how we were raised, and listening to their narratives, can help us see where they are coming from. Parents must create their own style of parenting together, and let go of the parenting styles with which they were brought up. This may be difficult; it may also involve letting go of past struggles with their own parents.
Create a shared understanding of parenthood.
Psychologist John Gottman, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, describes one of the principles as creating shared meaning about our life, life goals, and our spiritual journey together. Even, perhaps especially, in the context of coparenting, we need to work toward creating a shared meaning with our spouse. This dialogue is valid in all aspects of a married relationship, even in the context of parenting together; it’s healthy to start this consciously as soon as we choose to become parents.
Focus on each other’s strengths.
An important part of parenting as a team is learning to respect your partner and to appreciate the joy and happiness they create with the child—in their own way. I worry when I see parents call each other names or ridicule each other in front of their children; even comments like “Mamma is always angry” or “Papa never spends time with you” can impact children’s trust and put them in awkward situations.
Jay Kesler, an educator, in his book Raising Responsible Kids, says, “The relationship between a husband and wife is the foundation on which kids build their sense of security, their identity, and learn to relate to others.” A solid bond between parents, he says, can communicate to children that the parents are working together as a team.
Protect the kids from conflict.
All of us struggle with finding middle ground. But it’s crucial not to involve children in these battles. Research has shown that exposure to background anger negatively influences children’s emotional development. Background anger is often described as angry interaction – verbal, nonverbal or physical – between two or more people, not involving the observer. When parents fight in front of their children over parenting styles, it can often trigger insecurities for the kids and make learning how to parent together even more difficult. If one parent is disciplining in a way the other disapproves of, it makes sense to address the concern calmly and privately—not in front of the children.
Keep the lines of communication open, always.
In situations where mom and dad have totally different parenting styles, it can lead to friction and emotional turmoil. In such cases, it’s essential for parents to communicate openly with each other about the value system they choose to give to their children. Focus on the children—not a partner’s perceived parenting flaws. Discuss the pros and cons of each parenting style for the child’s development. A child’s temperament often becomes a key factor that influences parenting styles.
If you need it, seek help.
Sometimes, when parents can’t work toward a decision, it may be in the best interest of the family to seek a therapist’s help. An unbiased, attentive third party can help reopen the lines of communication and identify common ground, allowing couples and their families to discover the benefits of parenting as a team.