Getting your child school ready begins long before she’s out of diapers, with a plan to ensure her social and emotional growth.
When a Northwest couple — let’s call them John and Jane — discovered to their great joy that Jane was pregnant, they did what most expectant parents do: They began planning for that very precious baby’s birth. They shopped for strollers, high chairs and cribs; they decided which prenatal classes to attend and learned how to breathe during labor.
Looking back, John likens that ritual to prenuptial prep. The drunk-with-love couple fashions the glorious wedding with great care and micro-attention to detail. In effect, they plan for the wedding, not the marriage.
That’s pretty much the way John and Jane describe their first foray into the parenting world. Both have strong, dominant personalities and backgrounds that, while similar on a socio-economic level, differed in culture. John’s family was large, laissez-faire and permissive. Jane’s? Hands-on, strict and demanding.
With no real parenting plan in place, John and Jane ended up at odds over just about everything. “We fought over time: who does what for the baby and when. We fought over discipline and later, over schoolwork,” remembers John. “Our child could see we were always on different pages.” And that, he says, created even more chaos and confusion.
“We needed to present a united front,” says Jane. Eventually — and with professional help — they figured that out and had a considerably easier (and less tumultuous) experience raising their next two kids.
“It’s more important that parents agree than it is to be right,” says John. “It took a long time for me to understand this.”
We’ve been told for decades that it’s critical for parents to create a solid home base for their children. A safe and secure haven imbues children with the inner resources they need to function in the world and succeed in the classroom. But marital tension disrupts that haven and ultimately has an impact on kids’ behaviors, says Seattle clinical psychologist and author Dr. Laura Kastner.
In their book And Baby Makes Three, authors John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman discuss ways parents can create a home environment that nurtures children’s emotional health as well as their cognitive development. “Part of the problem is we think becoming parents shouldn’t be a big deal,” they write. “But once the realities of new parenthood set in, the stresses stand out, too. Does it have to be this way? Not if we have the skills to create savory family time, instead of sour and bitter moments.”
A certain amount of family tension is unavoidable. “As much as we talk of intramarriage consistency, there will always be differences and anxiety-producing situations,” Kastner says. Those situations can escalate into patterns unless parents or caretakers develop strategies to help them cope with the countless (and endless) issues parenting generates.
“Once the baby arrives, most families get into a ‘dance,’” says Carolyn Pirak, director of the Bringing Baby Home program. “One parent steps forward, the other steps back. For some, it works. But many people overthink the issues without allowing for flexibility.”
These issues — Pirak calls them “hot buttons” — can range from sports (she wants the kid on the slopes by age 3; he doesn’t get the ski thing at all) to schools (she went to Elite Prep; he’s a public school guy) to chess club (Chess? What’s wrong with tennis?).
Identify the triggers
The goal, says Pirak, is to move from a “me” to a “we” to a “three.” And that can take time. “Couples need to realize that the problems they had before kids will still be the problems they have after kids.” If he’s always late or she’s always disorganized, becoming a parent won’t change that. Or maybe he’s a spender and she’s a saver. “It’s normal to disagree,” Pirak says. “What you need is a strategy for disagreement.”
In other words, agree to disagree and then come up with a plan. Recognize that you enter a marriage with different goals, values and expectations, and that you will be having lifelong discussions on these topics. “Figure out what your triggers are,” says Pirak. “Learn to consider other perspectives. As you talk about these topics, find a way to compromise.”
Susan Livingston and her husband, Tom, found ways to compromise as they raised their two daughters, now ages 9 and 6. What’s particularly impressive about this Snoqualmie couple is that they’re no longer a couple. When they divorced two and a half years ago, they agreed, as Sue says, to “stay partners on the kid stuff.”
Not that it’s all been a breeze. They clashed over their kids’ sports, over whether the girls should attend preschool, over finances.
The fix? They deal with sports a season at a time. They talked with teachers, friends and pediatricians and sent the girls to preschool. As for the finances . . . well, that’s a work in progress.
Overall, says Sue, they’ve navigated each issue one at a time, with a respectable measure of success. “We know it’s important to maintain a united front, and even more critical in a family where there’s a divorce. Our goal is to be open and honest and in the end, do what’s best for the kids,” she says. “It can work. You have to make it work.”
Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.
Differing parenting patterns? Here are some tips from Bringing Baby Home director Carolyn Pirak to help parenting partners stay on the same page.
- Kids learn their value system from their parents. It is more important to find agreement on your core value system than in the daily tasks and challenges of parenting.
- Parents need a strategy for disagreement. Try to agree on a plan for when you will discuss relationship challenges, scheduling conflicts and parenting differences.
- Remember that you will bring your “past” to your parenting. By being aware of the positive and negative emotions you have about the decisions your parents made, you can make a choice to parent similarly or differently.
- As you experience differences in parenting philosophies, remember that children will benefit most from consistency and follow-through, not which parent wins.