Building a Friendship Bridge

What to do when parenting styles differ

Unfortunately, disagreements over parenting styles can become quite a bit more heated than whether to buy Budweiser or Heineken, as parent Karen Walker discovered. After a particularly horrendous shopping trip ended abruptly when her eighteen-month-old daughter Kayla refused to cooperate, Karen turned down an invitation to return to the mall later that day with her best friend. Her friend was less than understanding.

"She proceeded to tell me that she thought I was letting Kayla control me...and that you can't be friends with your children or you will end up with behavioral problems like Kayla's," recalls Karen. "It was not the advice or support that I was looking for that day!"

Why is it that we react so strongly to criticisms--intended or not--of our parenting styles? Perhaps because it strikes so deeply at the core of our values and beliefs. Also, though there's a plethora of parenting manuals to help you navigate the sometimes rocky terrain of child-rearing, there's no one "right" answer. Even experienced parents can feel a certain level of insecurity over their choices, and criticism can bring those feelings of uncertainty bubbling to the surface.

One especially touchy area is discipline. Ann Silberman, mother of Chris, age twelve, and two-year-old Matt, knows this only too well. One day when their kids were together, a friend took a wooden spoon and swatted her toddler's backside for misbehaving. "I was shocked--I don't believe in spanking children," says Ann. She considered ending the friendship over the issue, but was hesitant to take such a drastic step and decided to consider different alternatives first.

How you respond in which you find yourself embroiled in a parenting disagreement depends on several variables. How severe the mismatch is, the strength of the friendship, your friend's response to the disagreement, and even your own personality, will all help determine the most appropriate solution.

For situations when the conflict results from preferences rather than deep philosophical viewpoints--like my afternoon with Pam--it may be best to bite your tongue and adopt an attitude of "to each her own."

"There are some times when it's best to simply accept the fact that you and your friend aren't going to agree about a particular parenting issue," says author Douglas.

Lynn Cressotti, mother of four, agrees. Lynn has a very outspoken friend who never hesitates to share her opinion of Lynn's parenting decisions. "There are times where I'd love to open my mouth and let her know what it is I feel she is doing wrong," confides Lynn. So why doesn't she? Because it's more important to her to keep the peace than to have it out with her friend. "I just have to believe that things left unsaid are better, in some cases."

Sometimes, though, ignoring a disagreement doesn't work. The conflict may arise on a frequent basis, or the issue may be too important to you, as in the case of Ann Silberman and her wooden-spoon-wielding friend.

Ann says that after that particular incident, the two friends discussed the corporal punishment topic at length, to no meeting of the minds. "She was not to be budged, and neither was I," says Ann. "She intended to spank her child and I didn't."

Although neither woman was able to convince the other of her viewpoint, they were able to respect each other's decisions, a result that Karen Walker also achieved with her friend. After the unsolicited advice about Kayla's "problem," Karen says, "I'm afraid we had to have quite a confrontation about the issue. However, in the end she apologized and we agreed to try and respect each other's differences and not judge each other."

This "agreeing to disagree" is a great way to manage differing styles, say experts. "If the friendship is important to you, you would say, 'You and I have very different parenting styles,'" and then try to enlist each other's help, says Jeanne Elium. Elium and her husband Don are parents and authors of four books on parenting, the most recent of which is Raising a Teenager (Celestial Arts, 1999). "The job of parenting is so hard. You need each other's support."

But what can you do when a friend chooses to openly disrespect the choices you have made for your own children? For example, when a neighbor consistently plies your six-year-old with cookies and cupcakes after you've told her repeatedly that your family is sugar-free.

If talking it out doesn't work, says Elium, you may need to minimize your child's exposure to the person, or make arrangements to meet only on your turf, where you can better control the situation. "It does limit the friendship, but we always take it back to, What does your family really need?" Elium counsels.

Whatever those needs are, Elium reminds parents that not only do they hold the power to call the shots for their children, they also bear the responsibility to do what's best for their offspring, even if it means drawing lines--something Elium feels parents all too often forget. "We've really lost the sense that we are leaders for our children, and we set the standards and the rules," she says.

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