Q: My son’s mother and I do not agree on how to parent our 3-year-old child. She seems to be more strict and more harsh than I am. She says I am too soft with our child. She says that she doesn’t want her child to be weak, so crying is discouraged. How can we reconcile our parenting styles?
A: From the very beginning, parenting a child with another person brings out many points of contention; for example: whether to let the baby “cry it out,” have a family bed, or spank or not. When two individuals parent a child, each person brings his or her own family dynamics and culture as well as personal life experiences and relationships. All of these factors strongly influence an individual approach to parenting.
To make matters more challenging, these differences are compounded during the early years of a child’s life when the family stress level can be very high. The parents are adjusting to their changing relationship with a young baby or child added to the family, less sleep, a child who does not yet communicate needs and wants clearly, an increased household workload, and possibly changing finances and relationship dynamics between the parents.
You specifically mention your child’s emotions as a point of contention. So let me suggest the following as a way to honor your child’s emotions yet allow for parental guidance.
Dr. John Gottman, a University of Washington professor and the author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, developed a five-step approach called Emotion Coaching. Here are the steps:
- Be aware of your child’s emotions
- Recognize emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
- Listen empathetically, validate feelings
- Help your child label emotions
- Set limits — while helping to problem-solve
To read more on this very well-regarded approach, please visit Talaris Institute's Parenting Counts website.
Gottman’s research found that when parents used Emotion Coaching as a way to manage their children’s emotions their children:
- Were better at soothing themselves;
- Could calm their heart rate faster;
- Had fewer infectious illnesses;
- Were better at focusing attention;
- Related better to others, especially in middle childhood (for example, better coping with teasing);
- Had better friendships;
- Had better academic performance
The following is a strategy that all parents can employ when they disagree:
First, focus on your parenting goals. For example, most parents want to have a good relationship with their child even when he or she is an adult. Ask yourself if your discipline methods help in supporting this relationship goal. If not, then it's time for compromise.
Second, gain parenting skills together. Seek out independent research-based parenting support such as a Positive Discipline parenting class. Or read John Gottman's book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, which promotes the idea that parents would do well to cultivate their parenting base of power with respect rather than fear.
Lastly, work on what you do agree on. Consider what happens when two people are each holding an end of a rope. Most of the rope is in the middle and represents those things that you have in common, so there are more things that you agree on, than what you disagree on. Build on what you have in common.
Jennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.
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