Several years ago a group of scientists invited me to speak to their support staff at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, Panama. I was given the topic of how to have influence with your children. As part of my presentation I shared an interesting finding by Dr. John Gottman in his research on successful marriages. He essentially discovered that happy marriages are made up of spouses who allow themselves to be influenced by each other. Dr. Gottman noted that for the most part, women already do this; they tend to naturally allow themselves to be influenced by their husbands. However, men are a different story. I then encouraged all of the men in the audience to consider allowing themselves to be more open to influence by their wives. What happened next stunned me. Immediately after saying this, all of the women in the audience erupted into cheers and gave me a standing ovation! When my presentation was over I was almost hugged and high-fived to death. Allowing yourself to be influenced by your spouse is the first point I want to emphasize; especially as it pertains to resolving parenting conflicts. This means being open enough to consider their thoughts and ideas on parenting, even if you strongly disagree. This plea for openness and allowing your spouse to influence you is particularly made with men in mind because, as I just noted, we men do not do this very well.
Please note: I am not talking about abuse – if your spouse is physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive to your children, then you must at all costs protect them.
But, She’ll Go Hungry!
Now, for a real life example. When my oldest daughter was in the first grade, the cool thing was to bring a homemade lunch to school. I totally cannot relate to this because when I was a kid, you were considered a dork if you showed up with a brown paper bag, which I did daily. But I digress. Jessica was very excited about making and bringing her lunch to school, and carefully prepared her lunch the night before. She put the various food items in a brand new lunchbox and placed it in the refrigerator for the following day. The next morning she got up, had breakfast, and took off for school. Unbeknownst to Valerie or me, she left her lunch in the fridge. Just before noon that day, I received a phone call from Jessica at school. Our conversation went something like this:
Jessica: Hi Dad! Please bring me my lunch, I left it at home. Hurry, I’m hungry!
Me: Ok. See you soon honey!
Five minutes later, all was well. Later that night, the routine was repeated: lunch made, carefully placed in the fridge, anticipation set. Unfortunately, the next morning was similar as well, with a nice lunch sitting in the fridge long after she left for school. The only difference; later that morning Mom answered the phone instead of Dad. Valerie and Jessica had a similar conversation that I had the day before. With one exception. That conversation went something like this:
Jessica: Hi Mom! I forgot my lunch at home, and I’m starving. Can you please bring it to me?
Mom: I’m so sorry honey, we are not going to bring your lunch to you every time you forget it. It looks like you’ll be going without lunch today, and I hope you remember to bring it tomorrow.
Jessica: Can I talk to dad for a sec?
As I sat listening to my wife’s ensuing conversation with Jessica, my immediate thought was, “But, she’ll go hungry!” An argument followed in which I did not keep these thoughts to myself. Valerie explained that she didn’t like Jessica being hungry either, but wanted Jessica to become responsible and that some suffering might be necessary in order to teach her this lesson. I believed that making a six-year-old go hungry just because she forgot her lunch was a bit extreme. After all, hadn’t I done the same thing SO MANY TIMES growing up? Who was I to judge?! Valerie won out this time because she was the one that answered the phone, but I was not on board with this approach.
Who was right in this situation? Was I just being too easy, projecting my own problems with forgetfulness into this situation, and rescuing her when I shouldn’t be? Was Valerie really being too strict, with expectations that were just too high for a first-grader? After all, she was only six! With this in mind, I present to you 5 steps to getting on the same page with your parenting.
Step 1: Have the Dang Conversation
You have to be intentional and set aside some time to have a conversation that is specifically geared towards your parenting. Make some time to do this, with the goal of developing an effective, ongoing way of talking about the problem. Sometimes the topics can be emotional and difficult but you owe to your children to have it nonetheless. See my article on how to have difficult conversations for a few tips and tricks. Timing here is important. Never have it in the heat of the moment. Once your heart rate is above 100 beats per minute, you are now “flooded,” meaning that your emotions have taken over, and you are now in survival mode (i.e. the“flight-fight” response). We want to avoid flooding (or learn how to navigate it, which you will learn with my how to have a difficult conversation. So have the conversation, but definitely not in the heat of the moment.
Step 2: Talk About Your Dreams
I very fondly remember the first time Valerie and I had this particular conversation. Our kids were very young, and we were on a work trip in San Francisco. We had a free afternoon and lay down under some trees in a park in Sausalito and just started talking about what our dreams for our family were. This was a completely spontaneous conversation which lasted for several hours, but had an enormous impact on me. This is where I learned why it was so important for Valerie to have feelings of peace and love fill our home. I hadn’t realized the effect that her own home had on her. While I love her family dearly, there was a lot of conflict and fighting growing up, and she was desperate to never have this in the family she and I were creating. We talked about what we hoped for our children someday, how we wanted them to be kind, unselfish, and capable.
Remember, this conversation, at least initially, can and should be a daydreaming exercise. This is not a time to criticize, but rather a time to allow each other to talk about your dreams. So talk openly about these dreams and hopes you have. What do you want? What do you not want? Remember also that this is a time to really listen to your spouse. The very act of having this type of conversation will bring you closer together as a couple and will allow you to talk about the harder things.
Step 3: Talk About What You Like About Your Spouse’s Parenting
Now, about those harder things. One of the main points of this exercise is to allow you to talk about changes you would like to see in each of your parenting approaches. The best way to start this is to be conciliatory. I can guarantee that if you go from talking about your dreams directly to mentioning what a jerk your husband was for the way he treated little Johnny, the conversation will be over and won’t likely happen again.
Describe one or several things you like about your spouse’s parenting. It can be simple, such as the time Valerie mentioned how much she appreciates my emotional availability to her and all the kids. I didn’t know what she meant when she first said this to me. She told me that no matter what was going on in my life, no matter how busy I was, if she or the kids were ever upset by something, I would always drop whatever I was doing to be with them. This surprised me, because 1) It was true but not something I was consciously aware of; 2) It meant I was pretty awesome (at least it made me feel good); and 3) It was so cool that she actually recognized this about me. After she said this, I was willing to listen to almost anything else she wanted to communicate to me, good or bad.
Step 4: Label What You Wish Could Change
It’s important to be specific, and though you are complaining about something, don’t blame and make it personal. So instead of saying: “You are always so easy with Jessica, you give her whatever she wants. I knew you’d handle it this way.” Say instead, “I want Jessica to become more responsible, and I wish you hadn’t delivered her lunch to her.”
Be specific, be brief, be clear, be polite, and don’t blame and make it personal. It’s important that we LISTEN. Talk about specific situations with which you are struggling. In my example with Jessica’s lunch, by listening to Valerie, I was actually able to see what a problem this had become in other areas of Jessica’s life as well. This wasn’t just about lunch. Once I heard this, and saw it for what it was, and saw how Valerie’s motives were all about teaching Jessica to be responsible and capable, it was easy for me to get on board.
Step 5: Commit to Being Influenced By Your Spouse
Make a conscious decision to be influenced by your spouse’s thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the situation. No matter how right I think I am, if I let myself really listen and be influenced by Valerie, I am almost always happy that I did. In fact, in all of our parenting conflicts, I really can’t remember ever regretting doing this. Plus, you’ll find that as you allow yourself to be influenced, your spouse will do the same.