Have you ever been given the idea that you and the other parent of your children need to be consistent with one another as much as possible?
It can feel like becoming a two headed entity, and can often lead to friction when you don’t always agree on how to handle something that comes up in the quagmire that is parenting, like how to handle a behavioural issue or a challenging stage of your child’s development.
Well, I had an eye-opening interview with a parent as part of my research to better understand parents and the highs and lows they face. She said she advises new parents that they don’t have to do everything identically. In their child’s eyes, they are two separate people. The kid can understand that Mum does things one way and Dad does them another way.
She gave the example of a friend who got really upset because her partner had dressed the baby differently to how she does. They apparently had a big fight about it. But when asked why it mattered, the mother paused in her tracks. Did it matter if her husband dressed the baby differently?
When this mother brought this up in the interview, I started thinking about how my husband and I differ and, more importantly, how I have dealt with the differences in our parenting styles in the past.
I have come across this with disciplining my five-year-old. My husband and I try to be gentle and would probably say I’m somewhere in the attachment / gentle / authoritative parenting neighbourhood of the spectrum. But whereas he is more likely to let our son have crisps with his sandwich for lunch, I’m more lax on things like jumping on the furniture or roughhousing with his baby brother (within reason). And I’ve sometimes worried about how we do things differently.
I realised how in the early days especially, I often tried to influence my husband’s parenting style to be closer to my style. Or how sometimes a comment here or there might make him feel judged (and he’s a great Dad) or even disrespected.
Aside from obviously not wanting him to feel he’s constantly being appraised by me, or implying that the children are in any way more mine than his, there are a few problems with this.
For starters, it is difficult to try to be someone other than who you are.
It’s exhausting trying to guess what someone else wants you to do. I remember working for a manager and I felt I spent all my energy wondering, “What would so-and-so do in this situation?” or “How does so-and-so want me to handle this?” Needless to say I was desperately unhappy in this job, and when I looked at what was missing in my working life the word “integrity” leapt out at me. I wasn’t able to act with integrity between my actions and my thoughts, values, and personal attributes as I was too busy trying to please this other person.
Conversely, I became really emotional (surprising even myself) the other day because I was so grateful for the job I’m going back to. The fact that I feel what the organisation is trying to achieve, what I want to deliver in my work, and what I feel in my bones is good and the right thing to do were all aligned felt overwhelmingly beautiful. I was overcome with gratitude that I could hold my head high going back to work, not just for the pay cheque but knowing I might make the world a better place by pulling alongside a team of like-minded people all heading in the same direction. Integrity in my work life makes a world of difference in how I feel about spending the better part of five days a week away from my sons.
The same can go for parenting. Disciplining a child for something that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you can be difficult and tiring and make you feel like a meanie. Trying to be more permissive than you naturally are inclined to be can also just feel wrong and lead to guilt when you finally do snap and tell your kid off.
I’m not saying anyone should be more permissive or more authoritative or authoritarian. But I think in all facets of life, including parenting, it helps to be authentic and to act with integrity.
Trying to be a united front in all things can also make you feel like you’re trying to be someone else, finding yourself sinking into a new identity of “Mum” or “Dad” that is different from yourself.
If you ask me, kids don’t need a perfect parent. They need a human one, with the individuality that is implied in that.
Kids are resilient. They can understand that Mum might be one way and Dad might be another. (As I often joke to myself, it’s almost as if human children have evolved over millions of years to survive. Go figure.) They can learn that Dad likes to joke around in this way and Mum is better maybe for comforting them in that way.
And two imperfect but real parents can help a child so much. Children learn how to interact with different people. Maybe they learn how to be more independent with Mum, who is often distracted with the baby or her work. Maybe they learn to be more compliant with Dad, who puts more emphasis on holding hands when crossing the road or places more emphasis on behaving a certain way in public.
They can also learn to appreciate different aspects of their own personality, such as bringing humour to the situations with Dad and being helpful with Mum and baby brother.
This goes hand and hand with integrity and identity, as suppressing our truest selves in order to fulfil the role of “Mum” or “Dad” can mean we suppress our flaws (e.g. impatience) but also our strengths (e.g. passion and enthusiasm).
There’s a whole area of research into strength-based parenting (SBP), appreciative inquiry (AI) in teams and organisations, strength-based practice and the Strengths Model in psychotherapy and social work, where we can unlock solutions and potential by focusing on our strengths and what we learn from our successes, rather than focusing solely on mistakes and weaknesses.
It is not just about massaging the ego or the tokenism so often associated with things like the “feedback sandwich”. Genuinely understanding our strengths and celebrating these can help us be the best versions of ourselves – as parents, as business owners, as employees, as partners, and any other areas of our lives.
And actually, identifying and celebrating each family member’s strengths and what they bring to the family unit can be an incredibly positive experience.
Denying our individuality and trying to “match” our partners every step of the way can stop us from being true to ourselves, and therefore do justice to our strengths.
Consistency has its place
I’m not saying consistency doesn’t have a role to play. Of course, if a parent is constantly moving the goal posts this can feel very insecure and stressful for a child. And of course parents can benefit from having some ground rules so the child doesn’t play one off the other, especially if the parents are co-parenting after the end of their romantic relationship. (I think we’ve all seen the kid who asks one parent for a sweet, is denied, and asks the other as if the first conversation never happened. They can be clever little buggers.)
But maybe in the quest for consistency we also need to find a sense of balance, so we can be our true selves – two parents, separate people, with individual strengths and weaknesses, giving our kids a broad and safe base from which to grow into their own individual selves.
Instead of trying to be more like each other, maybe we can all try to bring more of ourselves into our roles as parents.
Activities and journal prompts
Here are some questions and further resources you might find interesting to explore and to celebrate your differences from your parent counterpart.
What are your strengths as a parent?
What strengths can you bring to a situation? What do you contribute to the family? It could be humour, resilience, patience, energy, organisation, honesty, communication, calmness?
It doesn’t have to be limited to strengths as a parent, either. Thinking of your strengths in all areas of life could help you celebrate your strengths and think of how you can incorporate this strength into any and all areas of your life.
Not sure what your strengths are? Personality tests you can do for free online can be a great and fun way to explore this – from Myers-Briggs or anneagrams to (my personal favourite) Virtues in Action (VIA) Character Strengths.
What are your partner’s/co-parent’s strengths as a parent?
Looking at a list of potential strengths, like the VIA signature strengths or similar, what do you associate with your partner? And what does (s)he say are his/her strengths? Did you attribute any strengths different to what your partner self-identified? It can be an interesting discussion to have if your partner is at all into this kind of thing.
What are your child’s strengths?
It can also be interesting to discuss this with older children and see what they identify as their strengths. For instance, my son and I discussed his strengths this morning and he found his ability to “entertain” as he put it to be one of his strengths. I pointed out that I think he is also caring and thoughtful of other people, such as his baby brother. He enjoyed the attention and honest praise, and it’s a nice way to help him appreciate his own strengths.
Other resources and links
This podcast from Live Happy Now includes an interview with SBP researcher and author Lea Waters.
I haven’t read the book but if you’re interested in learning more you may enjoy this book and/or purchasing an access code to take assessments.