Respecting Parental Differences
Divorced parents often have very different parenting styles, which may have been part of the reason the relationship did not work well. This can lead to sending kids mixed messages about authority, if parents aren’t careful.
After divorce, a single parent may want to separate himself or herself from the other parent by establishing a unique or opposite parenting style from the other parent, which is understandable. However, be careful to not send messages that usurp the authority of those in your child’s life who are in charge when you can’t be there.
Affirm the Role of the Other
It is important that neither parent give the child permission to defy the rules in the other household. In other words, it’s a bad idea to say, “You don’t have to listen to your mom when you’re over there,” or “Your stepdad isn’t your father, so you can ignore him.” You would never give your child permission to rebel against a teacher, coach, or youth pastor who is in charge when you are not around – the same rule applies here.
We should be teaching our children that when they are in the presence of authority, they should be respectful of the authority role, even if they are having trouble respecting the person. This is a good lesson for them to learn in life – adults often are subjected to authority they must listen to (employers, law enforcement, etc.) regardless of their personal feelings.
So, listen to your child’s anger or hurt feelings about how he or she experienced the other parent, or a step-parent, but refrain from giving permission for defiance. It’s better to say, “I’m sorry that happened at your dad’s house. It sounds like you were very hurt by that, but when you are at your dad’s, you need to do what your dad tells you to do, just like you must listen to me when you are at my house.”
Of course, this applies to non-abuse situations. If the other parent’s behavior is physically abusive or neglectful, you must involve the proper authorities.
Set an Example
Affirming authority also means being a good role model. In other words, respect is earned by being calm, firm and dependable. Think about the best boss or employer you have ever had. That person likely was not a pushover or abusive. He or she probably was a person of integrity who was confident in the authority role, clear about expectations, and followed through with promises. Be that for your children so they can learn how to be good leaders and parents themselves.
Work Together, if Possible
It is OK that co-parents do not have the same parenting styles or rules in their households. It’s also OK that one parent decides to not carry out discipline or grounding employed by the other parent if he or she is unsure of the circumstances or violations. However, when it comes to matters of grave consequences (especially with teenagers), it is best to try to work together to ensure kids know there is a united front between their co-parents.
Issues such as driving rules, drug or alcohol use, dating, etc., can have life-changing consequences. If you cannot get together fully around these issues, it is best to err on the side of caution and not make rules based on what will get you brownie points with your kids, but ones that will actually keep them safe.
Diane Chambers Shearer is a licensed marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta. She is author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families” (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. Visit her at www.dianeshearer.com.