How to Stop Battling Over Parenting Styles

by Dr. Jay Lindsay

Fred and Kate clashed constantly over how to parent their six year-old son, Jerry.

“Kate lets Jerry get away with murder.” complained Fred. “It’s anarchy!”

“Fred’s always on Jerry’s case.” Kate countered. “He jumps on Jerry for the slightest infraction.”

Fred saw Kate’s parenting style as soft while Kate saw Fred’s parenting style as harsh.

As the three of us talked in my office, it quickly became clear to me that Fred and Kate had polarized. Fred had become the always-tough parent while Kate had become the always-tender parent.

They had driven each other to opposite extremes and this made it impossible for them to function together as an effective parenting team. They were battling over parenting styles, frequently dismissing and sometimes even undermining each other.

How did all this effect little Jerry? Sometimes he was confused about where the boundaries of acceptable behavior lay and so he would act out to test the limits. Other times, he would try to divide and conquer, to pit one parent against the other in a ploy to get his way.

Sound familiar? It might. A high percentage of parents polarize around parenting styles and fight over them. Usually, these battles are over tough parenting versus tender parenting, as with Fred and Kate. If clashes like this ever happen in your marriage or in the marriage of someone you know, read on.

1. Insight: The best parenting style for your child is a combination of toughness and tenderness.

If one of you is the tough parent and the other the tender parent, your child needs the best that both of you have to offer.

There are times when your child needs toughness, like when he/she is being flagrantly disobedient or disrespectful. There are other times when your child needs tenderness, like when he/she is whining because of feelings of insecurity.

Often, your child needs some combination of toughness and tenderness.

Tip: Have a conversation with each other in which you recall situations in the past when each of these was effective: toughness, tenderness, or a combination of both.

2. Insight: Your child will feel most secure if you resolve your parenting differences in private and present a united front.

To feel secure, your child needs for the two of you to send a single, unified message about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

The last thing your child needs is to see the two of you fighting over what is and is not acceptable behavior and how to manage him/her. This is a sure-fire recipe for instilling insecurity in your child.

Tip: When you disagree with each other about how to respond to misbehavior, get behind closed doors and don’t come out until you’ve agreed about what to do.

When your child misbehaves, you may need to put your child in time out while you privately decide which parenting approach best fits the misbehavior: tough, tender, or a combination of both. From there you should be better able to choose an appropriate consequence.

3. Insight: What keeps you fighting over parenting styles is likely a negative interaction pattern in which you’ve both become ensnared.

The most common negative interaction pattern around parenting is the oscillating criticize-withdraw cycle. In this pattern you both go back and forth criticizing each other and defending until eventually the two of you withdraw from each other.

Each of you then becomes more deeply entrenched in your own position and less able to see the value in the other’s position. You begin to parent independently of each other, each of you doing your own thing.

The result? A confused child who acts out more and more!

Tip: Escape the oscillating criticize-withdraw cycle by talking about the emotions that lie beneath your surface anger and frustration.

For example, you both might be feeling devalued. It may seem to each of you that the thoughts you have about parenting don’t matter to the other.

At a deeper level you both may be thinking, “If my views about parenting don’t matter to my spouse, then maybe I don’t matter.”

Talk about these feelings that you don’t count for much with each other. Reassure each other that you really do matter and that your viewpoints on parenting also matter.

As you do, chances are you’ll connect at the heart level and each of you will feel more valued by the other. Then you’ll be better able to team up to integrate your tough and tender parenting styles.

Having this conversation is very difficult for many couples. If you’re having trouble discussing this, consider seeking professional marriage counseling.

The primary approach that I use in my marriage counseling practice, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), is particularly effective at helping couples to break free from negative interaction patterns by carrying on a deeper dialogue with each other.

4. Insight: Together learn a unified parenting approach that balances toughness and tenderness.

Doing this will help you to function more effectively as a parenting team.

Tip: Together take the Love and Logic parenting class, developed by Foster Cline and Jim Fay.

This class is offered all across the country to parents who want to learn to parent more effectively by combining love and logic, or tenderness and toughness. You can find out more about Love and Logic at:

A superb Love and Logic instructor in Boulder is Stephanie Bryan, LCSW. I strongly recommend that you visit her web site at:

Remember, if you and your spouse continue to fight over parenting styles neither one of you will win and your child will surely lose.

In their marriage counseling with me, I was able to help Fred and Kate stop battling over their different parenting styles and start balancing toughness and tenderness.

The result was that they became more effective parents and Jerry became a better behaved child.

If you and your partner or a couple you know have been fighting over parenting styles, I can help. Call me now at: 303-545-9828.


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Copyright © | 2012

Master couples therapist and psychologist Dr. Jay Lindsay utilizes Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), one of the most researched and effective approaches to marital therapy. Based in Louisville, Colorado, Dr. Lindsay is a marriage counselor who is sought after by couples from all across the country. He can be reached at 303-545-9828.