First, the good news: Children are very adaptable.
Children quickly learn that different settings and different people have different expectations – and they respond accordingly. For example, I was constantly amazed by all the things my children did for themselves at childcare that I was still doing for them at home! Many kids discover that begging to stay up late might work with grandma but not auntie. Or that mom will feed me but my teachers expect me to use utensils and feed myself.
The same goes for living in two separate homes with different sets of rules: children will adapt to the expectations in each setting.
Yes, it is indeed ideal for separated parents to try to agree on a basic approach to childrearing, as children tend to adapt more easily when there is consistency in rules from one setting to another.
But when there are disagreements – not uncommon for parents living together or separately – here are a few principles that can help you find harmony even when you aren’t on the exact same page.
- Accept that you cannot control the other parent. The only person you have control over is yourself. Focus on what you can do to tune in to and nurture your child’s unique needs. Trying to make your coparent do it your way is rarely an effective strategy.
- Agree that nurturing your child’s healthiest development is the shared goal – your anchor point for decision making. Your focus should be about what your child needs and how to best meet those needs. If that is your focus, it is easier to resist using the conflicts around child-rearing as opportunities to get back at, or punish the other parent.
- If you can’t agree on basic expectations and approaches to discipline, matter-of-factly acknowledge to your child that there are differences between your homes – without throwing the other parent under the bus. Blaming your coparent causes more distress for children who are trying to navigate through an already complex situation. You can use phrases such as: “That’s right, Mommy and I have different rules in our houses. Mommy’s rule is you can eat in front of the TV; Daddy’s rule is no TV during mealtime. I know you like Mommy’s rule better because you like TV. But we’ll tell stories instead at our meals.” Once children see that you are sticking to your limit, they will adapt.
- Plan regular times to communicate about what each of you is seeing, experiencing and learning about your child. If possible, calmly share what these observations are telling you about what your child needs to cope and thrive. For example, many years ago when my ex-husband and I separated, we noticed that our son, who was 6 at the time, had a much harder time when his Dad did school drop-off. He would get very upset and have a hard time coping and making the transition to school. When we talked about it with him, he was able to articulate that he hated the image of his dad driving away from him. So we changed our plan so that I did drop off whenever I could and his dad picked him up at the end of the day—for the reunion, if you will. By working together to address this unexpected emotional need, we helped him feel more secure at home and school.
Kids don’t grow up in perfect worlds, nor do they need to. What children do need are parents who, whether living together or not, demonstrate respect for each other, communicate calmly and without anger, and who make their child’s needs the central focus of their decision-making.
If you need help doing this, you are not alone. Remember, any steps you take to thoughtfully work together with your coparent will help you become the parent you want to be for your children.
For more parenting strategies, read Claire Lerner’s article: How to Find Harmony When Parents Disagree.