Mom vs. Dad: How to Make Co-parenting Work

At the Lucius home, 8 a.m. looks vastly different, depending on the day. That's because mom Melissa and dad Richard alternate staying home with daughters Amanda, 8, and Veronica, 5. And while they share parenting responsibilities, their styles couldn't be more different.

Richard describes himself as a kid at heart, "like a grown-up playmate. Childlike play and adventure—that's what they get with me."

Melissa's style is decidedly more organized. When she's home, there's a plan for the day.

"I guess I'm less spontaneous," she admits. "We have things lined up to do on my days home with the girls."

When it comes to the kids, Richard, a jazz pianist, is true to his profession: He improvises. On a typical morning, breakfast proceeds at a slow tempo with the girls helping out along the way. Cleaning? Not a top priority.

On Mom's day, however, by 8 a.m. the kids are up, and Melissa is making crepes. The kitchen? Spotless.

The contrasts continue. On Dad's day, the girls stay in their pajamas long after breakfast and wear them into the backyard, where Richard suggests they shoot bows and arrows. Then, despite intermittent showers, Dad helps them find branches to make slingshots.

Same time next day with Mom? It's "get dressed, brush teeth, and plan the day." Richard, on the other hand, doesn't even begin to dress the girls until 10 a.m., and instead of marching them to the bathroom to brush their teeth, he brings the "bathroom" to them by letting them brush their teeth and rinse into a cup wherever they happen to be.

Is There a "Right" Way?

Research shows that in most families, Dad tends to be the rule-breaker, mess-maker, risk-taker, while Mom provides the TLC and respects routines. But the question remains—are these two very different styles confusing to kids?

"The bottom line for children is, 'I don't have just one and a half person who is nuts about me. I have two and they are kind of nuts about me in interesting ways. They bring out different parts of me,'" explains Kyle Pruett, M.D., a child psychiatrist and the author of "Father Need: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child."

In other words, just because your spouse does it his way, it doesn't mean he's way off track.

"With so many things, I close my eyes and kiss it up to God," Melissa says with a laugh. "You know, I totally trust him, I know what he is doing during the day. I know he is taking great care of them."

And while Dad may not clean the breakfast dishes until after playtime is over, and may take the kids out in the rain, his parenting style – play before pots and pans and spontaneity over routine — is not necessarily wrong, just different.

A recent study of more than 200 new parents, led by James McHale, Ph.D. of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, reveals that this approach is healthier for the kids. Mothers who accommodate their spouses' different parenting approaches, who don't try to "fix" whatever Dad is doing, raise children who were significantly less anxious, more patient, and have better peer relationships than children whose parents criticize or micromanage one another.

The key is communication and good rapport between parents, even if their styles are different, Pruett says. Richard agrees: "You know, there's going to be some stuff about which you're just going to shake your head, and you just have to give a little bit eventually. You just have to let some things go."

Making it Work

There are several important "ingredients" in a successful co-parenting relationship. First, share your goals. Often, parents fail to communicate with each other. Explain why you parent the way you do. It's less a question of who's right and who's wrong than learning from one another. For example, Melissa teaches the girls the importance of rules and routines. Richard explains that he lets the girls run around because he wants them to learn to take risks and think beyond stereotypical "girl" activities.

Also, rather than focusing on forming a united front, where you strive to parent exactly the same way, try to be supportive and respectful of difference. Most important, don't undermine one another or criticize your spouse's parenting style. For example, the Lucius girls don't get the message from Dad that they should hide their "risky" activities from Mom. By creating an atmosphere where differences are permitted, you avoid making kids feel they're doing something with one parent that the other wouldn't condone, eliminating unnecessary anxiety.

Finally, you don't have to be a married couple that takes turns staying at home with the kids to be successful co-parents. Parents who are divorced or who both work full-time or even those who share responsibilities with a grandparent can achieve the same ends. The essential building blocks of a cooperative parenting relationship are constant communication, accentuating the positive, and compromise, regardless of family structure.

Learning from One Another

Mom can generally learn from Dad that chores can wait. This is especially important for working mothers to understand. Often they get home from work and plunge into getting baths and homework done, and then the kids have meltdowns because what they really want is just 15 minutes to connect.

Also, Mom can benefit by learning to let kids make mistakes. Don't swoop in to save them when they're frustrated over homework or even when they fall down. Dads tend to back off and let kids learn from their own mistakes.

Dad, on the other hand, can learn how to set routines from Mom. Children need routines to create a sense of predictability and safety in their world. Dads sometimes just wanna have fun, which can mean that bedtime drifts or unhealthy snacks make a pre-dinner appearance.

Furthermore, Dad can learn to better listen to the kids. It's important to pick up on their emotional cues, something that comes naturally to a lot of Moms. Mothers also tend to help kids label their emotions by providing the language to describe their feelings.

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