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?"

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.

In extreme cases, sticking to our guns may mean walking away from a friendship altogether. "I think you have to abandon a friendship if you find yourself embroiled in an ongoing conflict that has escalated into a power issue in which you're both determined to prove the other wrong," says Douglas. She gives the example of a stay-at-home mom who's determined to make a working mother feel guilty, or a working mother who doesn't acknowledge the value and challenges of being a stay-at-home-parent.

Even if that lack of support is one-sided, and one person continues to work to maintain the relationship, it may be time to say good-bye. When someone undermines your parenting decisions, it's most likely a sign of deeper problems in the friendship. Parenting is such an important and personal issue, says Elium, that "if they're not respecting your innermost feelings about something, that's a pretty deep disrespect."

The good news is, it's rare that you'll need to take such drastic measures to protect your choices and your family. We typically choose to surround ourselves with those who value our company and support our choices, even when they differ from their own. "I've never been in a position where I lost a friendship over differing parenting styles," says Jerri Ledford, mother of two. "I believe everyone is entitled to their own decisions."

 

Lain Chroust Ehmann has written over 100 stories for publications such as Woman's World, Writer's Digest, the San Jose Mercury News, and more. She and her family split their time between Boston, Massachusetts, and Los Gatos, California.

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