"I am worried about my husband's parenting style," one of my neighbors confided in me. "He tends to be a lot more demanding, more physical and more focused on helping the kids handle the real world. I wish he was a little more caring, gentle and affirming for the kids."
Her observation about her kids' dad's parenting style was right on, and when I told her that he was just being a dad, she was not impressed.
"I know those all sound like masculine things, but I don't even see much of a difference about his style with the girls as opposed to the boys."
My friend is experiencing the parenting style that most fathers take on in a family. Her frustration that he was not more like her seems to me to be unappreciative of the fact that children need both a mother and a father, and it is not just about family solidarity. Kids need both the nurturing style that most mothers bring to the family as well as a more challenging and real-world based style that seem to be innate to most fathers.
So how do the parenting styles of fathers and mothers differ, and how can we blend them in a family to benefit the children as they grow up and prepare for life?
One caveat is important. These differing styles can be overgeneralized based on gender. In some families, mothers can be more demanding and fathers more nurturing.
But the essential key is balancing the different parenting styles and getting the best impact from the blend.
A Mother's Style
Mothers tend to find themselves generally in a more nurturing role. They seem to have an innate ability to be discerning with their children. For example, they are often more tuned into a baby's specific needs than a father is.
There is simply an emotional connection between mother and child that a father simply doesn't get.
In addition, mothers tend to verbalize a lot more with the children. Part of that tendency is that women generally are more verbal than men. That style tends to manifest itself in parenting where Mom offers more words of affirmation, tends to express her expectations more clearly and to "talk out" issues involving discipline.
Mothers generally put their children's needs ahead of their own. She seems to come "pre-wired" to self-sacrifice; perhaps that starts with a pregnancy where a Mom's full-time physical care role is so dramatic.
A Father's Style
Fathers are generally more focused on having high expectations of their children and encouraging them to deliver on those consistently. They tend to focus less on making a child feel good or secure and more on challenging them and helping them prepare to cope with the real world. The emotional connection that a mother has is not often replicated in fathers. For example, my friend who has twin sons had a very hard time telling them apart as babies; their mother had no trouble at all.
Fathers, while they do not verbalize as much as mothers do, tend to be more direct and use fewer words.
They may seem to be "too tough" to the moms, but their toughness is rooted in helping kids be prepared for real life. From a disciplinary standpoint, they tend to impose consequences more quickly and then talk later.
Dads also tend to be less self-sacrificing, at least in an obvious way. Their sacrifices tend to be more focused on the family as a whole and less on individual children.
Combining Both Parenting Styles in Families
It is clear from the research that fathers have a critical role to play in the lives of their children. And fathers readily acknowledge that mothers are essential as well. So the key question is how to blend the different roles and styles into a cohesive approach to effective parenting.
There are a number of negatives that come into a family if these parenting styles aren't blended effectively.
- Children can feel confused or conflicted with different expectations from Mom and Dad
- When parents seem so different, children can be drawn more to one parent or the other because of their affinity for the specific parenting style
- As they mature, the conflicts can result in alienation or depression
Making It All Work
Finding the appropriate balance between parenting styles is the key to success. Balancing and blending require careful thought and action.
- Negotiate. Parents with different approaches need to find a comfortable place where both can be okay with the approach. Lots of communicating, talking about the differences and then cooperating and compromising will help find that appropriate blend.
- Support each other in parenting. Children can learn quickly how to pit one parent against the other and drive a wedge between Mom and Dad. We made the rule years ago that we would not disagree on parenting in front of the kids. If one of us had to let the other parent take the lead in a given situation, we would let that happen and then talk about it later.
- Defer to the stricter parent. At times when parents have different approaches, decide ahead of time to allow the more restrictive parent to prevail. Kids will try to manipulate you and go to the more conciliatory parent first, but potentially at the detriment of good parenting. Staying with the parent who wants more structure and rules will eliminate the future manipulation.
- Get together on the key values. When both parents want to teach and reinforce the same values, the different parenting styles work best. So thoughtfully come up with a family mission statement including key values your family espouses. Then, as you parent together, you can be united on the things that matter and identify the best way to get the values embraced in any given situation. The "greater good" will help you find the right approach.
- Get help if it is not working. If you find yourself in regular conflict over parenting styles, you might consider talking together with a family therapist, a clergy member, or a trusted friend who seems to be a successful parent. You might also consider taking a parenting class offered by your local school district or parenting program to help you better address the specific concerns with your family.
Working together to blend your parenting styles takes a lot of work and specific focus. But the positive impact on your children as you try to be effective co-parents can be truly amazing and worth all the work. Put your children first, recognize that different styles are not bad, just different, and communicate together as parents and you will find this whole parenting business a much more rewarding process.