Building a Friendship Bridge

What to do when parenting styles differ

While awaiting the birth of my first child, I had all sorts of mommy-to-be worries. I worried about labor. I worried about learning how to take care of this new person. I worried about having time with my husband once our cozy couple became a trio. And I worried about my social life. It wasn't the loss of nights out on the town, or even quiet dinners for two that I would miss. Instead, I feared I'd no longer be able to "connect" with my childless friends. I'd heard from so many people that having a baby would thrust me into a world totally unfamiliar to nonparents. But those worries were almost completely misplaced, for I've found the opposite to be true. It's easy for me--and for many moms and dads--to stay close to friends with no children at all. What's difficult is keeping friendships with other mothers and fathers who have significantly different parenting styles from my own.

A great example was a recent dinner date my toddler son and I had. Our companion, a childless girlfriend, Lynn, laughed and cooed over Benjamin. He could do no wrong, and she thought his every antic--including inserting French fries into his nose--was adorable. The choppy conversation style so typical of a mother with small children didn't bother her at all. We talked around Benjamin, and took turns retrieving his cup, his fork, and anything else he launched overboard from his high chair.

This evening was in marked contrast to another "date" we had recently. We were invited to spend the afternoon with an old friend I'd known in my pre-baby days, and her daughter, who's just a few weeks older than Benjamin. I looked forward to being at their house in the country, imagining Benjamin and Carrie running through their yard, enjoying the garden, and chasing dragonflies while the moms sat on the porch chatting over a cup of tea.

My vision was far from accurate. We spent the day inside, playing with little Carrie's toys. And Pam--with whom I'd meshed so well before we had kids--had become a different kind of parent than I expected. Gone were the days where we agreed on everything from movies to where to dine for lunch. All of the sudden, we mixed like oil and water, and our children were the reason.

Everything Benjamin touched, it seemed, was off limits. When he tried to throw a ball as we'd taught him, Pam told him sternly, "We don't throw balls. We roll balls." When he climbed on the piano bench, I was about to praise his climbing abilities when she scolded, "We keep our feet on the floor in our house." Meanwhile, Carrie quietly looked through her picture books and rearranged her stuffed animals.

After an hour of this mismatched play, my anxiety level was sky-high. I felt like I had just led the bull into the proverbial china shop as I tried to curb Benjamin's naturally rambunctious nature in order to comply with the house rules. He became whiny, and I found myself gritting my teeth more than once. But because of the two-hour drive ahead of us and my desire to see my friend, I stuck it out.

As soon as was socially acceptable, I packed the car and headed home, promising myself--and my son--never to subject us to that kind of discomfort again. At the same time, though, I didn't want to write off the friendship. There had to be a way I could keep my relationship with Pam while making room for our widely divergent parenting styles; I just didn't know what it was.

Any parent will attest that these kinds of parenting conflicts can arise over just about any issue. Whether it's discipline or diet, or how much and what kind of TV your children may watch, we can butt heads with friends and strangers alike. Some of the points of contention start the day your child is born, as Marion Sherman Howard learned.

At her now-toddler Emily Rose's christening party, Marion excused herself to go nurse her baby. A friend made some pointed remarks about what a bother breastfeeding was and how she didn't nurse her own children because it was too much work. Understandably, Marion felt these comments were a criticism of her choices. "Since then, I've felt that although she wouldn't say so outright, she disapproves of the lengths to which we go in our efforts to be good parents to Emily," Marion says.

Marion discovered a hard truth of parenting. Breast or bottle, "ferberizing" or the family bed, TV or no TV: Whichever decision we make, someone isn't going to agree with our choices--including many of those to whom we previously felt closest in life.

"I think it's important to accept the fact that each person has his or her own parenting style," says Ann Douglas, mother of four and author of The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby.(Macmillan General Reference, 1999) "You don't listen to the same music or drink the same brand of beer, so why on earth should you expect your parenting styles to be the same?"

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