When Parenting Styles Collide

If you and your date have very different rules for your kids, is your relationship doomed?

By Hillary Quinn

arah* had been dating Dan* for a few weeks when he came for a weekend stay at her house—eight-year-old son in tow. “My daughter and I had beautiful platters of eggplant, tomatoes, and artichokes waiting for them,” she remembers. But as Dan unpacked, out came extravagantly frosted cupcakes and a box of sugary cereal. As the weekend wore on, tensions rose: Sarah had a hard time watching Dan’s son gorge on junk food; Dan thought Sarah needed to lighten up. Not surprisingly, the pair soon parted ways.

While you might be wild for someone when it’s just the two of you in front of a roaring fire, all bets are off once kids are involved: Contrasting
It’s important to raise these issues before they start eating away at you.
parenting styles (say, he spanks his son and she hands over chips every time there’s a tantrum) quickly spotlight the differences between two people. Fortunately, those differences don’t always mean you have to ditch your date. Here’s how to bridge the gap:

Learn to empathize
“It’s easier to negotiate and be flexible when you truly make an effort to understand what your partner is feeling,” says Armin Brott, author of The Single Father: A Dad’s Guide to Parenting Without a Partner. A very permissive parent, for example, might be feeling guilty about the trauma his or her divorce has caused their child and therefore be going extra-easy, discipline-wise; one who makes tons of McDonald’s runs could be short on time or energy.

Talk the talk
It’s important to raise these issues before they start eating away at you, Brott points out. The trick is how to bring them up without coming off as an attack dog. For starters, always initiate these discussions in private—criticizing a person’s parenting style in front of their children undermines their authority and may make them defensive.

Then, in a calm, kind, non-accusatory manner, explain to your partner what you see and why it bothers you, and offer a constructive solution at the same time. For example, if your date is very involved with his or her children and you’d like him or her to give your relationship more time, you might say: “I think you’re doing an incredible job with your kids—in fact, I’ve been trying to take a few lessons from you and spend more time with my own children. But I think we also really need some time without the kids around. How about tonight we leave our kids together with a babysitter so they can bond a bit, and you and I go out for a romantic dinner?”

Bend and stretch
Just as you expect compromise from your date, they’ll appreciate your being flexible and open as well. “There are some decisions that are deeply felt and unlikely to change, like sending kids to Sunday school,” says Brott. “But there are other things, like food choices or TV-watching, that you might really be able to compromise on.” Here, some common causes of tension—and a few strategies to help find a middle ground.

Discipline: Tough cop vs. soft touch
  • “If one parent is militaristic and the other adopts a more lax approach, you need to talk about it right away. Even in a dating scenario, kids will quickly realize they can play one parent against the other,” says Brott.
  • Don’t interject with another opinion when one parent is doling out (or not doling out) a punishment; consistency is important so kids avoid a mixed message.
  • Never punish your date’s children—unless you have express permission to do so. If a child acts up in your presence, and your date is doing nothing about it, take your sweetie aside and ask that the situation be handled.
Food fight: Health-food nut vs. junk-food junkie
  • Be prepared to give in more often if you’re laid-back in the food department, says Brott. “It’s probably harder for the person who’s concerned about trans fats to eat junk food than it is for a fast-food eater to have a salad.”
  • If you’re the one who’s anti-junk food, offer to cook up a healthy meal, or bring good snacks to soccer practice.
  • Also, once in a while, just go with the flow: If the kids are clamoring for Big Macs and your date is heading for the drive-thru, quietly order yourself a salad and leave your nutritional platform behind.
TV trials: High-tech games vs. old-fashioned fun
  • If you bring your kids to your date’s home and the gang is glued to Fear Factor, you can’t really ask them to turn off the show. But asking for some tube-free nights in advance isn’t out of line. Try a simple, “Hey, will you back me up tonight and vote for Monopoly instead of TV when we get the kids together?”
  • Negotiate how your kids spend their time together. You could rotate between game nights and TV nights, or slot an hour for Xbox followed by an hour of cards.
  • Those who limit TV often do so because they believe it inhibits family interaction. If you’re the one campaigning for an evening of Survivor, you might express to your date that it’s your family’s favorite time to sit down and laugh together.
True values: Traditional vs. easygoing
  • Let’s say you’re okay with your child watching PG-13 movies and using the phrase “that sucks.” Meanwhile, your date’s children only watch what’s rated G and never even utter the word “stupid.” What to do about this culture clash? “This is a tough one because you probably view the world in different ways,” says Brott. If you’re uncomfortable with formality, you might say something like, “I wish your kids could call me Paul—it would make me feel closer to them.”
  • If you feel your date’s kids are misbehaving, it’s perfectly OK to (quietly) ask your date to rein things in. You don’t have to accept rudeness or swearing under any circumstances.
  • If your families’ activities (say, church vs. baseball) seem to conflict, you might consider abandoning your expectation that everyone will do everything together during your non-working hours. Says Brott, “People aren’t going to agree about every single thing. You have to allow your partner the freedom to be who they are.”
* Names changed to protect privacy.

Hillary Quinn is a Seattle-based writer who’s written for many national magazines, including Self, Redbook, Elle, Child, Cosmopolitan and Maxim.
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