After a girls' get-away weekend, my friend and I returned to her usually orderly home—now a housekeeping disaster. Dirty dishes were crammed in the sink, pizza boxes and empty soda cans littered the countertops. Clothes, toys, books, and shoes were everywhere.
Her children greeted her half-heartedly, "Back so soon?" Their forlorn looks were telling. They knew: Party's over!
With gritted teeth, my friend hissed, "Why does he get to be all fun and games and I've got to be the drill sergeant who gets everyone back on track?"
My friend and her husband are not the only parenting duo who've discovered significant differences in their parenting styles. Maybe you know Drill Sergeant Dan who's married to Permissive Pam. Bedtime at their house is bedlam. Dan roars at the top of his lungs, "You kids get to bed and you get to sleep now! I don't care if you're thirsty, hungry, or scared. I don't want to hear another sound." Pam, on the other hand, isn't too concerned about bedtimes: "Kids, just make sure you clean up the taco dip on the rug and turn out the lights before you go to bed."
Or do you know Spontaneous Sam who's married to Regimented Ruth? They struggle over the when, where, and cost of family fun-time. Sam can't contain his exuberance as he makes last-minute weekend plans, "Let's go to Disney World!" he shouts. Ruth wails, "The budget, Sam! There's only money for a movie and popcorn. Besides, Saturday is chore day!"
Then there's Empathetic Ellen married to Stoic Stuart. Ellen clucks, coos, and coddles her darlings over every bump, scrape, and heartache. Stuart scowls and grouches, all the while insisting the kids need to "tough it out."
If you and your spouse have polar personalities, take heart. You can make peace with your differences and raise happy, well-adjusted children.
Underscore Your Similarities
Despite their differences, all couples agree they want the best for their children—it's how they get there that brings on conflict. For instance, my husband, Steve, and I agree that our three kids need to acquire a sound work ethic, but our training approaches differ significantly. Steve likes to assign a task—often a difficult one—that involves lots of sweat, like hoeing the garden or stacking firewood. He later inspects and evaluates the (hopefully) finished task. His motto is to do the job and do it right.
I, on the other hand, like to work side by side with our children, enjoying their company, demonstrating the hows as we go, and often, when they lose interest, finishing up on my own. My motto is that work can be fun if you approach it right.
When I think Steve's expecting too much, or when he thinks I'm too soft on the kids, we try to remember that ultimately we both want the same thing. We want our children to know that diligence is profitable, so we allow for each other's differences in achieving that goal.
Appreciate Your Spouse's Strengths
Often, my first reaction when my husband is interacting with our children is, "That's not the way I would do it." But it's important to take a step back from thinking, my way is the right way, and recognize that both parents contribute immensely. David R. Miller, author of the book Help! I'm Not a Perfect Parent!, says that parenting differences are actually good for kids. If there is an extreme tendency in one parent, the other will likely soften that tendency. Kids will adapt and learn to successfully respond to each parent's style, which is a crucial, lifelong relationship skill. My sister and I remember when Mom (who expresses herself dramatically) yelled, it was no big deal, but if Dad raised his voice, we'd better get out of the way! Those differences have helped me understand that a loud voice doesn't always equal anger.
Let's say your spouse has a glaring issue that surfaces in parenting. Maybe she suffers from depression or he doesn't give priority to his relationship with God. While it's possible for this negative trait to affect your children, remember that God helps us in every aspect of parenting. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, God tells Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." By prayerfully applying this promise to our parenting, we find hope and comfort, knowing God is actively filling in the gaps our flawed selves leave. Remember that you have weaknesses, too. Pray for yourself and your spouse in this area and extend grace.
Don't Ignore the Irritation
The conflict ignited by differences with your spouse is inevitable. But it compounds when you focus on the problem rather than the solution. To effectively address a disagreement, start by reaffirming your commitment to the relationship and to resolving the problem. Communicate with a workable solution as the goal. Develop listening skills and creative ways to compromise.
In her book Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide (InterVarsity), Diana Garland gives sound advice on communicating powerful feelings when she says, "[Anger] needs to be named truthfully and reported in ways that do not lead to sin against one another." Truthfully naming the problem means reporting one's experience and feelings. For example, my friend who was angry at her husband for not cleaning up the house could say, "I feel angry and upset when I come home from a weekend away and the house is a disaster." To accuse and blame is tearing down and disrespecting your spouse. Garland urges using "I" statements to relay feelings. She says, "Learning to sort through feelings and use them on behalf of those one loves is a spiritual discipline that requires vigilance, prayer, and self-control." And it is vital to family life. Getting beyond your differences will involve a lifetime of discussion as you face the new challenges that come with each stage of your children's lives. As Miller states in his book, "When it comes to children, parents are supposed to disagree, but within certain parameters of love, good sense, and putting the welfare of the other above one's own."
A longtime leader in family ministry, Garland encourages couples to identify and pursue God's purposes for their families and operate accordingly. For example, at times Drill Sergeant Dan's orders will get the job done effectively. Maybe he can get everyone moving and to church on time on Sunday morning. Perhaps Regimented Ruth can keep family members within a budget so they can save and eventually take that trip to Disney World. The next time you and your spouse lock horns over a parenting matter, remember to relax, be compassionate, and know that your kids need you both.
Faith Tibbets McDonald is a writer and mother of three. She and her family live in Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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