“The bliss,” a mum I know told me recently whose significant other was away for a few nights, “to be parenting on my own, no negotiations, no compromises, just my rules, my way.” The reality that sometimes lone parenting can be a welcome break is a bit of a dirty little secret for couples. Parenting, is mostly a two person job, yet the fact that many of us don’t always agree on what are appropriate rules and boundaries for our kids is something which can cause greater conflict then we’d often like to admit.
What pretty much every parent will agree on though, is that arguing about parenting, while parenting, is possibly the worst feeling of all. Your kids are confused, and let’s face it, are also hardwired to search for weaknesses – if they spot a divide they can slip right through, then chances are they will. So how do you avoid the pitfalls of polarised parenting and still manage to be true to your own values around fairness and discipline? And remain on speaking terms with your partner?
The fact is, all of us have a parenting style, most of which, for better or worse, is informed by our own upbringing (I get accused of being too much of a ‘hippy’ which I like to interpret as not being draconian, or from the 50s). It can make you swing to the opposite direction of what you’ve grown up with, or make you want to recreate what you had, depending on how positive you found your own experience. For many of us, it’s a mixed bag, and our buttons are being pushed without us even knowing it, as we try and hang on to, or even just hang in there, with certain situations.
Sinead Hanly, psychotherapist with Bray Counselling and Therapy Centre, says we are often tripping up on the same old issues. “The everyday regulation of the household, whether children should be involved in chores, whether they should they get pocket money, and then with older children, issues of when they go out, or if they can go out, and responses to how well a child is doing at school are all things that crop up the most. The responses need to be geared to the gravity of each situation but really the most important thing is the collaboration between the parents.”
Discord, bad communication, and reacting rashly are all elements that can undermine that. But before you start envisaging some Partridge Family over-the-rainbow day-glow living, disagreement actually is not all bad. “Sometimes parents forget that it is just as important for the children to see that you can negotiate from two quite different viewpoints, reach a consensus and hold that consensus, as it is to see that you are always both of one mind. Children aren’t surprised that parents have different styles, they know they are different people.”
The greater context of what is happening in your kids’ world will always weigh in too. “It’s hard to hold out against something if everyone is doing it, but the challenge is to balance against what is the social norm and what is right for you and the key strategy there is discussion. It’s not a good time to develop policy when you are presented with a fourteen-year-old who wants to stay out all night. The key message is collaboration, though, even if you are separated on all those type of things, it is an everyday part of living in a partnership.”
The other thing to watch for, says Hanly, is the stress and anger around other issues in the relationship playing out in your parenting. “That is definitely one to take a step back from, and one to maybe get some help on.” She recommends parenting courses, and also any literary resources that work for you, but there is little point if you don’t discuss them together. “You have to make sure you don’t get triangulated with the children, where it is, in fact, an oppositional thing in relation to the other parent, it ends up undermining the entire group.”
Hanly recommends two or four therapy sessions with a family therapist in those circumstances as the dynamic with your partner is key to parenting, as much as your own upbringing. “If parents feel they are in something quite complicated a good parenting course can work, too. There are two different strategies, one for under-12s, one for over 12s, which are quite different.”
This, Hanly stresses is not about singing Kumbaya, getting all Ned Flanders-esque and rolling out a kind of identikit parenting. “If the parents are exactly on the same page it can be quite one-dimensional. There isn’t enough flexibility. Your children are different people and each one will thrive in a different environment.” The devil is in the negotiation it seems, and the learning to live and work within the differences. “If you have a very unitary template its just too much of the same for the different personalities you are going to get. The contrast is good, as long as it’s a collaboration.”