For a couple clashing on child safety, how to find common ground

For a couple clashing on child safety, how to find common ground
For a couple clashing on child safety, how to find common ground Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Question: My husband and I have differing views on what is safe for our 18-month-old. I would say his tolerance is much higher at the playground, for example.

But other times, he thinks something I am doing might be unsafe, such as letting our son play with a closed water bottle. How do we navigate these differences? I'm sure this issue is going to keep coming up.

Answer: You have a universal parenting problem: having to parent with another human. The first couple of years with a child are fraught with doubt, worry, concern and confusion. Why is the child screaming? Why did the child stop eating peas? Why is the child waking up every night at 3 a.m.? Throw another person and their opinions into the mix, and it can become pretty hairy, pretty fast.

Why is it difficult to parent with another person? Not only does your spouse have another notion of what is appropriate for your son, but there is also the difficulty of the love (I'm assuming) that you share with your spouse. Don't get me wrong, I love love, but it complicates everything. When we love our spouses, parenting disagreements can easily dissolve into arguments that feel like moral failings.

It can be shocking to learn that your spouse, for instance, is far more overprotective than you imagined. Or that your partner thinks you have a laid-back attitude that is going to get the child maimed or killed. These differences, though normal, can feel like a slap in the face and seem insurmountable. It is easy to assume that your parenting differences will never end. And I am not trying to scare you when I say that these early and small disagreements are only the beginning of your parenting choices. With sleep schedules, food, discipline, schooling and activities, parenting is full of decisions that can knock even the most in-sync couple out of equilibrium.

What are you supposed to do?

Although many blogs and articles will encourage you to "get on the same page," I prefer to advise parents to concentrate on how they communicate rather than try to simply agree. I emphasize communication over agreement because it is virtually impossible for two people to agree on all parenting matters. Raising a child is too complicated and emotional to find one correct way, and trying to agree on every issue is not realistic. We are better off focusing on compassionately listening to each other, with as little judgment as possible.

And children thrive when parents don't agree on everything. Unless you are in an abusive or dangerous relationship, children grow and learn more with parents who are not completely alike. Yes, basic morals and values will probably line up for many couples, but differences on thresholds for risk, love of different activities, food tastes, energy level, etc., can yield a harmonious and more interesting home.

For instance, I love sports, but my spouse could not care less about them (aside from golf). He does not see attending a live sporting event as a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. So, I don't push these events on him, and he agrees to occasionally attend some sporting events with the family. Similarly, my husband loves the holidays: the music, the decorating, the lights, all of it. I like the holidays, but I do not share his enthusiasm for the stuff that goes along with them. He waits until after Thanksgiving to decorate, and I withhold my eye rolls and listen to holiday music as much as I can tolerate. My children are enriched by our parenting differences.

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Although this seems like a simple compromise, it is a result of frequent conversations. My husband doesn't try to convince me to embrace holiday fanfare, nor do I force him to love sports. Instead, we acknowledge what is important to the other person and try to find a way to support it. It is both that simple, and that hard.

I suggest taking 15 minutes with your partner and using basic emotion-coaching language, such as: "When you __, I feel __ because __. Please tell me more about how you are feeling/thinking." You may be surprised by what comes out. And although this may sound silly, it is a wonderful practice to say, "When you tell me I am being unsafe by giving Ralph a closed water bottle, I feel attacked because it seems like you don't trust me. Please tell me what your concerns or worries are so I can better understand your perspective."

When we speak like this, we are respectfully naming our thoughts and feelings without accusing the other person of wrongdoing. This is mature work. But communicating respectfully in the early years of parenthood can save you a world of grief as the children get older, and the challenges become thornier.

As for books, I recommend the marriage and parenting books by Julie and John Gottman, which focus on how couples handle conflict, and how conflict erodes the union. Their emotion-coaching and communication tools are simple, clear, research-based and doable.

I also recommend some child development literature to help you match your expectations to scientific research. I like the Yardsticks series for children ages 4 and up and the classic Louise Bates Ames series for the younger years.

Stay respectful, open and compassionate, keep a sense of humour and get support. Good luck.

The Washington Post