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6 Questions about Partnership Parenting

with Dr. Marsha Kline Pruett


Women often want to make men into their equal partners. They want men to step in, but often they want everything done their way. Here are 6 helpful answers about successful managing partnership parenting.

What difficulties do moms and dads run into when they try to share the job of parenting?

Women often want to make men into their equal partners. They want men to step in, but often they want everything done their way. We’re all guilty of sometimes saying, “Honey, can you do this - but this is the way I want you to do it.” And then getting frustrated when things are done differently. Maybe the baby's been out later than you would have liked, or she isn’t wearing a coat and it’s cold outside. So the mom winds up telling the dad how he’s disappointed her, and then the man withdraws from parenting because he’s feeling like he’s not getting it right. And if that happens enough times, he starts feeling like he’s walking on eggshells. All this creates anger and smoldering frustration, and if it isn’t dealt with, it begins to pile up for both parents and then it can come out in an explosive fight.

mom and dad kissing their baby

Partnership parenting is about each spouse having respect for the other’s style and also for the difficulty of parenting. It’s asking, How do we parent in a way that is together but not equal - because equal is not efficient? How can we be efficient and also feel really good about the chances each of us has to do what used to be separate men’s and women’s work? How can we best divide up work and family and still keep our love at front and center of our relationship?

You talk about the ways in which mothers and fathers parent differently. How do children benefit from experiencing these different styles?

Mothers don’t father and fathers don’t mother. Fathers tend to discipline in a briefer way and one that’s more focused on the world out there. “You shouldn't do this because the others won’t like it.” A mother’s discipline tends to be more focused on their relationship. “I’m disappointed when you do that,” stuff like that.

Fathers tend to create play and novelty - they approach tasks with children in a different way each time. They do it with less structure. Mothers like to create structure so that children are more likely to succeed in the task. That supports a child’s self-esteem but it doesn’t push them to develop independence or competence in quite the same way.

dad watching his son ride a bike

So moms tend to have a style that increases children’s sense of self-esteem and their awareness of social relationships. Fathers tend to promote frustration time. When men are more involved, children have more tolerance for frustration. People who don’t have that tolerance tend not to stick with things; they tend not to finish things; they tend not to try as hard at things that aren’t comfortable. So having greater frustration tolerance is important.

When men are more involved in very young children’s lives, the children tend to become more verbally competent. Boys and girls whose fathers are involved in their lives use more complex words and sentences when they’re first starting to talk. That’s because moms are wonderful at knowing the day-to-day of their kids' lives so well that they actually anticipate their needs. A child can say one word and her mom will know exactly what she means and will help the child get what she wants. In contrast, a dad might say, “What do you mean?” “What do you want me to do about the fact that you want juice?” He makes the child work harder to express herself.

Parents struggle so hard for consistency - what happens to that goal when fathers and mothers have different rules?

You need to be consistent about major rules, like safety issues. But parents have never been consistent with each other on everything - that’s impossible. What’s important is for parents to agree about what matters and back each other up. Consistency doesn’t have to mean doing things exactly the same way.

mom and dad kissing their son

We talk so much about fair share, too – about mothers and fathers spending equal time with their children. Through the ages parents have done things differently and given different amounts of time and attention to their kids, but the kids don’t think less of one or the other of them for it. If parents feel resentment about time issues then they need to talk about it. And the best time to talk is before situations come up. “Who is going to get up at night? Who is going to drop the baby at day care?”

You devote a chapter of your book to managing conflict, fighting fair and “healthy disagreement.” Can you give us some tips?

It’s important for parents to fight fair with each other. If you are feeling something’s wrong, make sure that you pick the right time to raise the issue, before the moment of conflict. Start the conversation with, “I feel scared,” or “I feel nervous when you do that,” or “This is what it makes me feel like. What’s your opinion?” That way it becomes a discussion between two parents; it’s not about blaming and it doesn’t come out angry.

Some of the most difficult issues for parents in the early years relate to sleep - when a child sleeps, how she sleeps, how you get her back to sleep, what to do when she comes into your bed, how long you stay when you put her to bed. To reduce conflict, figure out what you both agree and don’t agree on. Then try it one way - say, letting the baby cry it out - and stick with it consistently, with the other person being supportive. If that doesn’t work, let the other person try their way and see if that works. It's a constant renegotiation between the parents.

Successful parenting is about learning how to see the other side, when to let things go, when (or how) to modify your behavior. As long as you both feel like you’re being heard and understood. The more people talk about things, the more they feel like a team. And if you approach it as a team instead of as individuals coming at it from different perspectives, you tend to feel better about sharing the job of co-parenting.

How does your partnership model work when it comes to safety issues?

The first thing to do is come to the discussion armed with knowledge: How can I back up my position? What does the research show? Or what is the standard way of dealing with this safety issue? What do we know?

The problem is, moms and dads have different comfort levels with risk. Maybe your partner thinks it’s silly to cover the outlets and you think it’s dangerous not to, even though the baby isn’t one to stick things into sockets. What do you do? You need to go with covering the outlets. There’s data to show it makes a difference. It’s a small, cheap, quick solution, and if your partner doesn’t agree on it, just do it anyway.

Many couples have conflicts around water. What is your comfort level and what is your partner's? What are your histories? You need to talk about these things. Of course, it's never safe to look away for even a second when your baby is in the bathtub, but how about later? When is it okay to start your baby swimming? How far will you let her go? A dad may let a child go further because he trusts that he has the strength and stamina to chase her down.

You may find yourselves agreeing to disagree, which is key to successful co-parenting.

What are the main things to look out for in partnership parenting?

Mothers need to be careful not to control how he does things - and fathers need to step up to the plate and not just wait to be told what to do and how to do it. Both of you should know the important things about your children: who their doctors are, who their friends are, which friends are best friends. These are things that a dad needs to know not through mom but through his own experiences with his child. If he knows these things, he has a right to tell mom to back off and let him do things his own way. Neither of you can have it both ways if you want a strong partnership.

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