Many parents make the mistake of assuming that cooperative co-parenting means doing everything exactly the same. This is a rather unrealistic goal. You and your ex separated probably in a large part because you were two separate people who didn’t see eye to eye, and so the idea that you’ll suddenly become two peas in a pod when it comes to ideas about raising the kids is not a reasonable expectation. Parents who approach life with this goal will be in for a great deal of frustration, and are likely to create conflict with the other parent that makes cooperative co-parenting much more difficult.
Distinguishing between cooperation and conformity
“Children can handle different rules,” says child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. “It’s the conflict between adults that’s confusing for them.” (Johnson, 2010) When you take a minute to think about it, you’ll realize that kids handle separate expectations all the time. They go to school, where teachers may have different classroom rules or ideals for behavior that vary from what they encounter at home. One teacher may even ask different behavior from another one down the hall, and how they are required to act in gym class is quite different than what they’re expected to do in science. Kids are used to adjusting their behavior for different settings. They can act one way at home, let loose at the park, and put on yet a third face while at church. So don’t confuse cooperative parenting with universal conformity.
What’s important is that parents maintain an environment which doesn’t undermine the other parent, and which respects these different styles while promoting consistent ideals and enforcing structure and discipline across households. It’s not about mom and dad doing things exactly alike, or having the same approach towards raising children, or even seeing eye to eye about what’s important for the kids.
Learning how to share the kids
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that trains parents to be extremely possessive of their children. Women especially have a difficult time sharing kids, and can grow extremely jealous and/or intolerant whenever discrepancies arise between what they desire and what others do. But as strong as these feelings are, parents should try to remind themselves that these emotions are largely the product of cultural conditioning, and do not necessarily push them in the direction of what’s best for their children.
Throughout most of human history, kids were a community project. Parents cared for them, but so did any number of other people in the huts that were within walking distance. Children freely roamed from grandma’s hut to uncle Jacob’s hut before spending time at the next door neighbor, interacting with and learning stuff from each person. Some areas of the world are so communal when it comes to child rearing that women reportedly sometimes forget which kids were actually theirs. All indications are that our kids were built for such community caretaking, and can benefit from it quite a bit.
Not only will you have to get used to sharing the kids and conceding some control when it comes to your partner, but there are probably step-mothers or step-fathers or live-in girlfriends down the road as well. Which is why we put together some information that we hope will help you adopt the right perspectives towards different parenting styles, so that you understand that the kids can be just fine even if others do things differently.
- Recognize that differences are inevitable, and that these differences can be healthy
Studies have demonstrated that mothers and fathers as a whole tend to have different approaches toward parenting, regardless of whether they are together or apart. Mothers tend to be more uptight and protective, whereas dads tend to be more fun, adventurous, and generally push boundaries among the kids. (Anthes, 2010) Children don’t collapse in such an environment, they thrive in it. These differences have a way of complimenting each other to the benefit of kids. Whereas one parent is an advocate for caution and stability, the other parent is pushing the child to reach for new limits, which leads to more competent and skillful children. Try to think of different parenting approaches in the same light: As complimentary to each other rather than a contradiction.
- Understand the important role that variety plays in life
Spending time with people who do things differently from you is exactly what your kids need. In fact, in our book Raising Resilient Children, we actually list this as one of our important parenting principles for raising strong kids. Here’s why: Encountering a number of different caretakers promotes social intelligence in kids and can actually serve as a buffer against any one parent’s particular neuroticism. For example, try to look at it through the same processes that govern genetics: Life itself is built to draw the best from different worlds. When you got together with your ex to make your babies, the fertilized egg took your DNA and combined it with his DNA to create a wonderful new creature who took advantage of some of the best from each parent. If there was an area of your genome where a particular gene was corrupted or missing, the developing fetus could swap it out with a good gene from the father, and vice versa. If you had a gene sequence that offered protection against cancer, and the father one that promoted physical strength, your child could end up benefiting from each. (On a side note, this is why procreation with family isn’t such a good idea. It’s not that such children are doomed to be retarded; most are perfectly normal. But by mixing two genomes that are relatively similar, you lose out on this “best of both worlds” benefit, and raise the risk that defective areas in the genome would become dominant, since more similar genomes are more likely to have errors in the same places, which can lead to developmental disorders.)
This principle works the same for social development as it does for genetics. The more people a child has involved in their life, each offering a wide variety of personalities, approaches and experiences, the better off that child will be. It serves as a protective factor against the flaws of any one particular parent. Children can take some of the best qualities from each caretaker and merge them together. They can grow more socially intelligent by being exposed to different parent figures with different approaches. So long as there isn’t conflict between households or bickering among overcontrolling parents, variety in parenting style can actually be a benefit to your children.
- Good parenting knows many styles
Remind yourself that there is no proper formula for “good parenting,” and that there are many approaches that will produce happy, well-adjusted kids. So long as you pour in the key ingredients – love, affection, support, and breathing room to grow – any number of styles can produce a positive outcome. There is, however, one parenting style that consistently creates problems: over-protective and over-controlling parents. So do your best to loosen up.
- Two people, one goal
Remind yourself that no matter what your differences, both of you have the same goal: raising happy, well-adjusted kids. To this end, focus on the values you share, such as wanting kids to be respectful or successful in life, rather than the details of how you strive for these goals.