Parenting is a tough job made both complicated and easier when there is more than one parent or caregiver involved. Having help in parenting is invaluable, whether it be from a spouse, extended family member or good friend. However, it is important to coordinate care and provide consistent parenting, which can be hard to do when parenting styles differ.

What to do when parenting styles differ

My husband and I luckily have found our parenting styles to be fairly in sync, which helps us tremendously. However, this does not prevent differences on topics we least expect. So, what do you do when you have a different parenting style or belief than your parenting partner?

  • Value different approaches: They can teach different perspectives and encourage flexibility in children. Therefore, if different approaches are not causing problems or confusion with your children, and the approaches are for rather small issues, embrace the variety!
  • Keep stress away from kids: It is important to keep the arguments and stress as far away from children as possible so that they don’t feel caught in the middle. Talk to your partner at a time when emotions are not running too high. Identify the most important things to you and to your partner and try your hardest to reach a compromise. Bring in a third-party mediator, (for example a friend, religious leader, psychologist) if you are not making any progress on your own.
  • Balance your approach: For issues that are neither very major nor very minor, there may need to be some give and take. For instance, one parent may agree that it is okay for kids to watch some television, but would like it limited to the weekends. In exchange, the other parent may agree that family dinners are important but ask that, on two nights a week, there is flexibility to allow for other activities.

When a child acts out with one parent and not the other

I think the real measure of parenting success is that you are successfully managing unwanted behaviors and promoting good behaviors. If that is the case, then don’t mess with a system that is working! However, if a child is acting out with one parent and not with another, this can sometimes be for a variety of reasons:

  • One parent may be more of a disciplinarian than the other.
  • Each parent uses an opposing style, for example maybe mom uses humor and dad uses physical affection to deal with a situation.

These differing parenting styles may encourage a child to respond differently depending on the situation and strategy, not necessarily a bad thing, but a warning sign might be if a child is clearly having difficulty with one strategy versus another, then parents should try to coordinate and be consistent.

An example might be that when a child engages in an unwanted behavior, one parent puts in time out, the other might try to reason with the child or distract. If the child doesn’t engage in that behavior again with one parent, but continues with the other, than that is a time when the parents should coordinate and both use the approach that appears to be working, whichever that may be.

In any negotiation, make sure to state your point of view without too much negative emotion attached. Ask honestly for your partner’s point of view and listen with an open mind. Try to problem solve creatively to come up with a middle ground where both parents can be happy. There are many different parenting styles and rules and most kids grow up happy and healthy despite a variety in their parents’ approaches. Having disagreements with a partner often creates an opportunity to take a more thoughtful approach to parenting that has been considered and negotiated, and when that happens, kids benefit.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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