The Parenting Talks Every Couple Should Have Before Marriage
I grew up in the '90s and spent my free time watching shows like Full House and Sister, Sister. Aside from these shows being amusing and giving me all the feels, I loved watching the family dynamics. These fictional families were prototypes for what I hoped my family would be like one day. It wasn't until I had my first child that I realized great parenting dynamics don't just happen—it's something you have to be intentional about.
I didn't discuss how I wanted to raise kids with my former partner before getting married, and that was a mistake. Here are the things I wished we had talked about in retrospect.
When two people come together to start a family, both individuals probably have different backgrounds and upbringings. This can influence the way both of you approach parenting. A result of opposing parenting styles? Arguing about whether your kids should have ice cream before dinner or how to discipline them, if at all.
For anyone new to parenting styles, there are four primary styles, which include:
Authoritarian parenting: Push for obedience and punishment instead of discipline and natural consequences
Authoritative parenting: Create rules and healthy boundaries while enforcing a positive relationship
Permissive parenting: Poor enforcement of rules and boundaries
Uninvolved parenting: Parent is unavailable and provides little to no support or guidance
My former partner and I grew up with authoritarian parenting styles—it was rigid and sometimes harsh. We never discussed whether we wanted to raise our son in the same way or try something different. I naturally began parenting my son in an authoritarian way because it's all I knew at the time. The further along in motherhood I got, the more I started leaning towards an authoritative parenting style because I noticed being a drill sergeant parent was having a negative effect on my son.
Shouting at him was also making him fearful and telling him to stop crying was minimizing his feelings. To me, this wasn't a good approach if I wanted to raise an emotionally healthy child. However, my son's dad wasn't on board and that's when I realized we probably should have discussed these things earlier on.
I get that parenting styles can be a touchy topic, but perhaps begin by reading a book on parenting styles together such as The 4 Parenting Styles & Which One You Are? By J.S. Lapointe. This could be a great way to spark discussions around how each of you were parented, the effects it had on you and what approach you'd like to take as a parent. You could also take a parenting style test together and discuss your results.
What happens if you find you have completely different parenting styles? Find out the core values that are rooted in your differing parenting styles and think about if there are ways you can meet in the middle. For example, let's say both of you share the same core value of respect but one parent thinks it's achieved by spanking while another person thinks it's achieved by gentle communication. Meeting in the middle may look like communicating in a firm tone and holding firm boundaries.
Another idea is to explore ways that your parenting styles complement one another and how you can use your differences to create a balance. Using the same example, if you are rigid and your partner is permissive, you can teach your partner to have better boundaries, and your partner could teach you how to get on the child's level and be more empathetic.
If you're still at odds, learning about parenting together or speaking with a family therapist could help.
How to share parenting duties is an ongoing debate and, to be honest, it looks different for every family. This isn't something I discussed beforehand, and it led to lots of friction and frustration on my end. I was taking care of all childcare responsibilities, from changing diapers to reading bedtime stories. I was also working and taking care of domestics, so as you can imagine, I was burned out. Unsurprising considering a 2020 report by Oxfam and the Institute for Women's Policy Research found women aged 15 and older spend 5.7 hours daily caring for kids, elders and doing household work vs. men who spend 3.6 hours.
Although these aren't the easiest conversations to have, talk about how you want to split childcare and leave room for flexibility. I have a friend who agreed with her partner to bring their mom to live with them for some time to help with childcare so they could both work. It's also nice to check in every so often to see if your arrangement is working or needs reworking.
Your values determine how you live your life, and you consciously or subconsciously pass them onto your kids. My former husband and I had very different core values, and I didn't realize until later how it would affect our parenting efforts. For instance, his values around respect were that children should be obedient and submit to all authority without asking questions or talking back. On the other hand, I believe we should encourage children to challenge authority, ask questions, and speak up for themselves. I don't see that as disrespectful (when they use the right tone).
Another example of a core value is faith. One parent may believe a child should be raised in church, while the other may think kids should have the freedom to choose their own path to spirituality.
While you don't have to agree on everything, be honest about which values matter the most to you and express why. See how you can compromise so you're able to raise a child that embodies both of your values.
Discussing your childhood trauma is hard to do—especially when you aren't aware of it. However, it's so important you understand your trauma, otherwise you could easily pass it onto your kids. When I started therapy, I gradually learned more about what my trauma and triggers were (Shouting and minimizing feelings) and how I was repeating the cycle as a mother.
For instance, I would snap at my son any time he made a mistake or get extremely impatient when he cried. Likewise, his dad had similar behaviors which also stemmed from his trauma. Not discussing this beforehand meant we didn't have a strategy in place for how to navigate these traumas and break the cycle as parents.
At the time, I didn't know how to have a conversation with my son's dad about how our behaviors were potentially harmful to our son. I thought if I gradually changed, he would eventually get on board too, and in some ways he did. For instance, he would take more time to explain why certain things weren't allowed instead of just saying no without an explanation. However, when it comes to how he handles discipline, we've had to agree to disagree.
What Education at Each Stage Looks Like
Education is a huge part of a child's life and, depending on the route they take, it can be pricey. It's so critical to discuss things like:
- What age you want your child to start school
Whether you want them to do public school, private school or a hybrid
Whether home ownership purchases will be affected by school systems
How standard education will benefit your child, specifically
Whether you want a tutor and how much you'll budget for one
Whether extracurricular activities and sports are going to be essential and, if any are off limits
When I found out our son was autistic, I had to decide whether he would attend a mainstream school or a private specialized school. At that point, I realized his dad and I had very different views on when a child should attend private school. I thought it may be beneficial during early years and my former partner thought it wasn't necessary until high school years, if at all.
We agreed that we would see how he progresses in mainstream school and if it wasn't working, revisit our private school conversation. We also decided to get more information from professionals so we could make decisions based on data vs. emotion.
It's unlikely parenting with your partner will always be smooth sailing, but setting expectations can make it easier. As with every other relationship, honest communication, compromise and understanding should carry you through.