Parenting from Different Pages
Most of us enter parenthood looking forward to sharing the journey fully with our partner. We hope to carve up the practicalities, as well as talk and dream together about how to raise our children. We want to share what’s going well and what’s not, and to reflect on the details of the day. However, having listened to hundreds of parents, I know many discover that their parenting partner is less interested than they are in the finer points of child rearing, or directly disagrees with their way of doing things. This is the cause of much stress and tension in families. And the fact that much parenting advice suggests that you should be on the same page as your partner, only adds to the feelings of inadequacy.
A partner’s disagreement or lack of interest leaves us in a much lonelier situation than we’d hoped for. It can lead us to feel frustrated and disappointed. And these feelings tend to make us relate to our partners in ways that aren’t so helpful. A good starting point is to notice that, more than anything, we want a close loving family. This can help us approach our partner with the intention of connection, rather than “being right” or doing things a certain way. Then we find there are many ways of bridging the gap between us. The ideas that follow might help.
1. Introducing Your Partner to your parenting ideas
Slowly model your approach In order to reach out to our partners, we need to build the warmth and take a long-range view. There are good reasons your partner is in disagreement, or is less interested in parenting than you. He or she may be preoccupied with earning a living and supporting the family. Perhaps a difficult childhood, makes it painful to turn their attention to parenting, or to consider strategies that are based on connecting when a child’s behaviour goes off track. Whatever your partner’s reasons, you need to share your skills and knowledge at their pace and in a way that gently opens the door to your ideas. A powerful way to do this is to think about teaching through modelling. You guide the way each day as you interact with your children and partner. As you model your parenting approach and gently offer small pieces of guidance, your partner will slowly pick up on your ideas and may even start to use them.
Bite-sized guidance Every now and then you can offer bite-sized bits of guidance to gently explain your parenting philosophy. If you parent in a way that values children releasing their emotional tension, you might make little comments like “See how much more relaxed she is after that big cry,” or “See how after all those pillow fights he’s now got the confidence to try and learn to ride his bike,” slowly build up your partner’s understanding without overwhelming or threatening him or her.
Wait to be asked Whilst you’d probably love to rush in and explain all you’ve learned, it can be much better to wait for your partner to raise an issue for discussion. Make yourself listen carefully to their concerns and ideas, even if they don't fit with what you want to do. By understanding their worries you can better handle their challenges to your ideas. Talk about the tools very gently saying things like, "I think it might help if...", "Yeah I can see what you mean, and I totally agree it's very upsetting to see her hit the dog...I wonder how she’s feeling inside... how we can help her with those feelings?" Standing back a little and making a gentle, slow approach will help your partner make huge shifts in their parenting over time and keep them receptive to your ideas.
Offer a little bit of reading You might try to carefully offer your partner some reading. You could kindly say something like, “I know you’re not really into reading parenting stuff but would you mind just looking at this? Tell me what you think.”
When they have finished you may be eager to talk about it, but it might be wiser to wait for them to take the initiative to comment, rather than push the discussion. However little they talk about it, trust that much useful information will have sunk in. If they just bring up objections to the approach, listen carefully and respond kindly. You are learning about them and, most likely, about their childhood, as they speak.
If they’re not interested in reading anything, just accept that and try another way, or another time.
2. Building Family Connection
Building warmth It’s helpful to think about building warmth with your partner. One simple, yet highly effective idea is to have a weekly date together where you don’t talk about the children. This can be as straightforward as an hour chatting together over a drink or a meal after the kids have gone to bed. You can use this as a chance to shine your warm attention on your partner and appreciate their goodness.
Arrange time for your partner to be alone with the children More than anything, we want our partners to have a close connection with our children. An effective way for them to create that is to have regular time alone with the kids. Without us around, our partners can find their own way of enjoying their children, and at the same time build confidence in their parenting.
Perhaps your partner is able to take the kids off for an hour or more each week to do something fun together like play on the beach or kick the ball at the park. The amount of time you arrange needs to be what is currently manageable for your partner. This kind of regular time alone with the kids will help build your partner’s closeness with your children. They are also likely to come back with questions every now and again about what to do when something difficult happens. This is the perfect opportunity to offer a bite-sized chunk of guidance.
Promote laughter by playing the less powerful role in play Another way to build the connection between your children and your partner is to play games together as a family that bring laughter. See what kinds of games you can create around your partner, so that you're using laughter and silliness to strengthen all the connections in the family. Games of chase; games of offering kisses “I’ve got 100 kisses for you” and allowing the children and your partner to scamper away, often successfully; games of hide and seek, games of your partner teaming up with the children to fool you or surprise you or “scare” you are a great way to build trust and closeness.
Appreciate your partner’s efforts It can do wonders for your parenting relationship to let your partner know that you notice the things they do well—especially the things they do so much better than you. Maybe your partner is particularly good at sparking lots of fun and silliness when they’re with your children. Every now and then say things like, "Oh, I think it did the kids so much good to hang out with you today. You obviously had so much fun together. I've been a bit boring this week: I think they really needed your silliness energy," or "You did so well there, gently not letting him have another glass of juice." You don’t need to go over the top; simply, honestly appreciate their efforts.
Find what you can agree on It’s often possible to find a way to agree on how to handle a situation, even if you and your partner are coming at it from different angles. You may be able to find a way to handle difficult moments that meets many of your wishes (if not all of them) whilst being good enough for your partner, too.
Let your partner experiment It can bring enormous rewards to give your partner a bit of slack to experiment. Learning to sit back and let them try things that are different from what you do can be hard, but it may help you both learn. Sometimes your partner will reflect on what he or she is trying and you'll have the chance to listen and make suggestions when they’re receptive to new ideas.
Protect your children With letting your partner experiment you can hold the bottom line—you will step in as gently as possible and protect your children if your partner is behaving in a way that you think is totally out of order, like shouting at them or hitting them.
Raise awareness of how old memories can cause big feelings in the presnt It’s particularly helpful for your partner to understand the concept of “restimulation”. When we get restimulated and act in ways that are hasty and heated, we can be sure that some old memory has triggered big feelings and we’re no longer responding to the present moment. If you try to communicate this concept at a time of upset, you can be sure your point will not be well-taken. Instead, choose at a time when you and your partner are in good communication, and things are going smoothly.
One way to explain the concept of restimulation to your partner is to ask for help when you get triggered. “Hey, I think I need some Time Out. Can you look after Jimmy for 5 minutes? I can’t be with him just now—I’ll explain later.” Afterwards, say “Oh gosh, all he was doing was mixing all the colours so he had brown paint and I know he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but it just irritated me. I think it’s because when I was little my Mum would get so cross if I ‘wasted’ paint...” After doing this many times you may then be able to gently prompt your partner when he or she is restimulated. “Hey, do you need some Time Out?” And eventually you might see your partner start to initiate Adult Time Out without your prompting.
Let your partner vent You can help your partner let off steam by allowing them to “vent.” Use any opportunity your partner starts to talk when he or she is full of emotion, and respond listening warmly and avoiding giving them advice. This can be tricky – it’s easy for a partner to trip up our feelings. But the more time you give your partner just to vent their feelings, without you rushing in with big reactions or offering advice, the more they will slowly shed some of the tension that stops them being fully engaged in parenting, or open to new ways of understanding parenting.
Help your partner talk about early childhood If you the more coherent and clear we are about our own childhoods, the more able we are to respond to the present moment with our kids. And so it can be helpful to talk about your childhood and work on feelings from that time. You can help your partner do this too. Pick a time when you are alone and things are relaxed between you and ask a little question like, "What would your Dad have done if you'd hit the dog like Sam did today?" One question at a time will probably be enough. This will slowly open up your partner’s awareness of their childhood and how it impacts on his or her parenting.
3. Supporting Yourself
Get support for yourself Whilst all the strategies above can do so much, they are very hard to do unless you have good emotional support for yourself. You need to clear away the feelings that get in the way of relating well to your partner. Finding a good listener can help. You can use your listener’s attention to grieve how things aren’t going as you hoped, to shed the disappointment and tension you hold about your partner, as well as to talk through the details you would love to be able to share with your partner. Joining a parenting group is a great way to share your parenting journey with like minded parents.
Once you have built good support for yourself you’ll be in much better shape to help your partner.
Use your support system when your partner is triggered When your partner is highly restimulated you may find he or she gets critical and worried about your parenting style. This is a hard challenge! But your support system is a good place to take the feelings that come up, so you can find the strength to keep responding with connection. And as you grow in your confidence of your parenting you’ll likely find that these criticisms become less upsetting for you.
Focusing on connection, building good support for yourself and adopting a slow and gentle approach to your partner will bring enormous rewards. Over time it’ll help you and your partner make big strides in how you parent alongside each other. It will bring your whole family closer together.
Here’s how it can work. A parent I was supporting shared this:
’I had (and sometimes still have) some issues with my husband, especially when it came to the Staylistening. I never really thought about it but I guess, the Staylistening probably brings up a lot of stuff from the past, his childhood (it wasn't bad per se, just troublesome at times.)
I decided not to go on too much about that part but concentrated on getting him involved in a lot of special time and Playlistening, rough
housing (which thankfully he LOVES doing with the kids).
I think a real turning point for my husband was when my 7 year old
finally learnt to ride a bike. He had been struggling for over 2
months and was becoming increasingly frustrated - yelling at the bike,
screaming when he fell over, walking away from the bike and vowing
never to get on it again, kicking it. Nobody wanted to deal with his
frustration (it was just too difficult for both my husband and I at
the time)so the bike was left in the garage for over 6 months. During
school holidays the whole family really got into play - pillow
fighting, pretend boxing, jumping, horse rides. After each session, my
son had a bit of tantrum, whining about why the play time was so
short or some other reason.
The following week, he announced he wanted to ride the bike. We took
him out to the park. Something was different - he just seemed to have
the right attitude, it didn't phase him if he fell off or if he
couldn't steer. He persevered and on that day, he figured it out!
I saw this as an opportunity to explain to my husband that each time
my son had his little tantrum, he was ridding himself of all the
frustrations that were stopping him from learning something new. Plus
I imagine he took out a lot of frustrations on us as he whacked us
We still have some disagreements especially when I am keen to have a
staylistening session with one of my boys and he steps into "rescue"
me. He's a lot better than in the beginning though.’