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Parenting Disagreements: 3 Tips for Parents Who Disagree (A Lot)

Pull up in your mind any ‘80s sitcom that depicts a family (Family Matters, Family Ties, etc.). Now think of an episode where the parents have to deliver some kind of consequence to their child. What does the scene look like?

Invariably, both parents are sitting calmly with the child, saying something like, “Your father and I talked and decided….”  The parents typically agree on how the problem should be handled, showing a completely united front.

Now think about your own family. How often does it go down like that? If your answer is 100 percent of the time, you can stop reading because you’ve won at parenting. For all the rest who may find themselves disagreeing with spouses or co-parents about parenting decisions, or with different parenting styles, here are some suggestions I regularly give to parents:

Tips for Managing Parenting Decisions and Disagreements

1. Beware of the “polarization” trap.

It’s a well-studied phenomenon that people with particular views on a topic take a more extreme stance when they’re faced with somewhat opposing views. It’s happening in politics right now—the liberal become more liberal and the conservative become more conservative. This can happen with parenting, too. For example, one parent may naturally be more of a disciplinarian; the other may have more laid-back tendencies. Put these parents together and suddenly you have one parent who wants to ground for life and the other who wants to let everything go. This happens because each parent feels the need to offset the effect of the other. The consequence-focused parent worries that the teen won’t learn the lesson and pushes for more severe consequences. Conversely, the permissive parent worries that harsh punishment might damage self-esteem or hurt the parent-child relationship and takes a stand for a slap on the wrist.

When you find yourself in a parenting disagreement and reacting strongly to a decision your spouse/co-parent made, try to get some perspective and tune into your values as a parent. Do you really think the teen needs to be punished so severely, or are you falling prey to polarization? Think about the decision you would make if your spouse was out of the country and you had to come up with the decision on your own. Likely, you’d want to consider your co-parent’s perspective too, which is also what you should try to do here.

2. Have empathy.

If you’re feeling baffled or frustrated by a parenting decision that your co-parent made, try to understand the “how” and the “why” of that conclusion. Often the answers for someone’s approach to parenting may be found by thinking about that person’s own childhood. For example, a dad who always wants to be the “good-time dad” and is reluctant to set limits or give consequences may have grown up in an overly punitive environment. He may have decided that he’s going to parent his kids differently. Understanding the source of your spouse’s parenting style won’t solve differences, but having empathy will soften you in your approach. You’ll be more likely to have a productive discussion and maybe even more likely to compromise.

3. Hand it off and let it go.

Sometimes parents just cannot reach a compromise and have to agree to disagree about certain parenting decisions. It may time to just divvy up, in order to limit parental conflict in the future. Perhaps Mom makes decisions about dating and curfew, while Dad makes decisions about academic expectations. It may mean digging deep to bite your tongue when you disagree. It may help to remember something I often tell parents: No one parenting decision is going to ruin your kid. Rather, it’s the sum of all of your decisions throughout the years that influences the development of your child.

Matthew Rouse, PhD, MSW

Matthew Rouse is a clinical psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders, as well as other disorders that may contribute to behavioral difficulties in children and adolescents.

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