How to Parent When You Disagree

Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

February 23, 2022

Last November, my oldest daughter finally obtained her driver’s license. Like many teens, she was eager to use her newfound freedom by taking to the streets. As her father, I must confess to being less enthusiastic than she was. Wasn’t it just yesterday my child was toddling around the house? And now I’m supposed to let her get behind the wheel of a car and drive around all alone? I was prepared to ease her into this driving routine, letting her drive back and forth to school for a few months (or years?!) until she gained more experience, and then we could look at increasing her range.

My wife’s approach was different. She tends to be more permissive than I am, and her reasoning was that, now licensed, our daughter should be allowed the freedom and responsibility to take to the roads and learn through experience. So, who was right?

Odds are pretty good that you and your spouse have different approaches to parenting your children. One of you may be more restrictive while the other of you tends to be more permissive. One of you might prefer to put your kids in lots of structured activities while the other would rather give your kids ample free time for unstructured entertainment. These differences have the potential to create conflict in your marriage and confusion for your children. You may find that you are working against one another, arguing, and even undermining each other’s authority to your children. They, in turn, will learn quickly how to play the situation to their advantage. No one wins when you do not parent as a team.

One Plus One is One

A principle that is central to Biblical marriage is that husband and wife “become one flesh.” Far from being an expression of only the sexual relationship, unity in marriage means that you and your spouse speak as a “We.” You both remain individual people, but are unified around others. This means that effective parenting isn’t forcing a choice between your spouse’s style or yours; it’s not dominating with your approach over your spouse’s. Instead, as a team, you both bring strengths to the table.

If your parenting styles are a source of ongoing conflict in your marriage, the first step is to open the conversation. Acknowledge what you are doing is not working well. This isn’t time for the blame-game; rather, name the ways your competing approaches have negative effects on your children. In all likelihood, both of you are contributing to the dynamic. Be honest about how you are playing a part in this conflict. To the extent that it’s possible, you’ve got to recommit to working as a team. It may come as an encouragement to find that you are both frustrated with how your current situation isn’t working, and that you both have in common a desire to be partners as you raise your children.

Complementing Not Competing

If you clash with your spouse about your parenting approach, odds are that you will find it easy to nitpick their approach. You can list all the weaknesses in how they discipline your kids or in how much freedom allowed them. In fact, you may grow frustrated because all you see is the flaws in their approach. But have you considered the advantages in the parenting style that your spouse brings to the table? My wife tends to allow our kids more freedom, while I tend to want them to pay attention to the rules (after all, don't kids need structure and discipline?). It’s easy for me to become frustrated because I can't control them. I have come to see how my wife brings a graciousness that allows our kids the freedom to try new things, to make mistakes, to spread their wings. While discipline and structure are also valuable, I’ve come to see how her approach is a necessary balance to mine, and vice-versa.

It might be helpful for both you and your spouse to examine your own approach as well. What are the reasons behind seeking order and structure? What is it about giving your kids more freedom that you find effective? The reasons behind our parenting styles are many. Likely our approach to parenting mirrors how we were raised. We may find that our insecurities might lead us to fear a negative reaction from our kids. Digging into the motives behind our own approach might help us see aspects of our style that are helpful and effective, and some aspects that are driven by less-meaningful values.

Watch the Bad Guy Syndrome

A potential danger in differing parenting styles is that one of you inevitably will look like “the bad guy.” Your kids will naturally gravitate towards the one parent who is more permissive, more laid-back, more mellow. To a parent’s ego, that can feel deeply gratifying and it’s tempting to feed on that. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because your kids are drawn to your parenting, that your parenting is the better one. And don’t let them bad-mouth the other parent to you! And, make sure that you are not letting all of the parenting tasks related to discipline, responsibility, and enforcing the rules fall to one parent alone. Don’t let one parent become the bad guy in the eyes of your kids! Negotiate and agree on your parental expectations in private and enforce them equally in public.

Stay on the Same Page

Finally, there will be some basic parenting matters on which you will need to agree. Here, communication is vital, and compromise is probably necessary. What can you agree on when it comes to handing out consequences for wrong behavior? What limits and freedoms will you give your kids when it comes to socializing, or social media? James reminds us that we should be “quick to listen, and slow to speak” (James 1:19), and striving to understand one another, and working as a “we” toward an agreed-upon set of rules and limits will serve your family well.

Shortly after my daughter earned her license, I was scheduled to travel for almost two weeks, meaning that all transportation would fall on my wife while I was away. I was reluctant to allow our daughter to drive. There was probably some wisdom in a measured approach. Nevertheless, since I would be away, I could not expect that my preferences (and the consequences that came with them) would be imposed on my wife. I communicated what I thought were the important concerns to my wife, and she expressed her point of view on why she felt giving our daughter the freedom to drive was important. In the end, my daughter ended up driving, safely and carefully, back and forth to school (and a few more places as well). Our parenting styles are different, but we learned to work as a team and our kids were the better off because of it. When you work as a team, your children will be well-served by your shared approach, and the strengths you both bring to the table.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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