One of the most difficult roads for us to navigate with friends and family is when our parenting styles and choices conflict with those we love. I share these words from Joanne, a young woman who, finally, after months of struggling, sought consultation at the JF&CS Parent Consultation Program about her dilemma.
“Ever since my friend Annie’s baby was born, our relationship has changed dramatically,” says Joanne. “We used to enjoy long walks and talks together, evening dinners over a glass of wine and sharing thoughts that were enlightening, mundane and always delicious. Those peaceful times together have changed since the birth of her son 16 months ago.” These sentiments are probably familiar to many parents. For Joanne, Annie’s parenting choice to keep her child close to her at all times put new and unwanted limitations on their relationship.
Friendships and family relationships may be altered by differences in parenting styles and choices like these. All too frequently we hear of family members who cannot tolerate sharing another raucous meal with their sibling’s children, or the out-of-control preschooler who ruins all extended-family outings with his tantrums. Problems may arise when others close to us are choosing to parent their children in ways that feel unacceptable to us, annoying, out of control or interfere with our relationship with the adult who is caring for them. When we observe behaviors that are not acceptable to us, we are filled with a range of emotions. But due to the sensitive nature of the parenting experience, these emotions do not have a direct route to expression, which may leave us making judgments and feeling resentful.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that just as no two parents have the same thumbprints, none of us parent our children in the same way. Parenting styles, practices and choices are influenced by many factors: the predominant cultural messages about a “right way,” family influences and environmental pressures, among others. The way we parent flows from multiple sources, among these our expectations of what we want for our children, our values and our own self-esteem. Parenting is the most commonplace yet complex experience. And the experience is so often very different from what we had imagined.
Despite what we know about genetics, temperament and environment, many parents feel their children’s behavior is a reflection of who they are as a person and who they are as parents. Parents of young children often feel as if the outside world has a view into their insides through their children’s behavior or their parenting practices. The experience is universal, but the question remains: What to say and/or do? It turns out that it is rarely in the long-term interest of the relationship to say something to someone whose parenting style and/or child’s behavior is troubling to us; we risk the relationship and that person’s trust.
Because the practice of parenting is so very personal and complex, unsolicited advice, confrontation and even gentle questions are rarely effective and may only serve to create greater alienation. The practice of parenting brings to the forefront our personal histories, our own experiences being parented and our relationships with partners. We never know when we are treading near an emotional landmine, so our safest approach is not to tread at all.
Alternatively, when it becomes too difficult to tolerate the parenting behaviors of friends or family, it may mean finding other ways of being together apart from children, or less engagement in the relationship for a given period of time. With extended family, it may mean structuring times together differently or being together for shorter periods of time.
Through the years, I have observed many friendships and families torn apart by differing parenting practices. Even with the best of intentions, speaking out may do harm. Rather, it is a time to hold back from our judgments and find new ways to stay connected with friends and family.
Peggy H. Kaufman, M.Ed., LICSW, is director of the Center for Early Relationship Support at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Boston.