I was recently in a discussion with a mother who wanted to help her husband understand and adopt a respectful approach to parenting as she had done. His parenting style and hers were in conflict and it was causing some tension in their relationship and confusion for the children. It’s not the first time I’ve had this conversation with a parent and from reading through respectful parenting forums, I have seen that struggling with different parenting styles is an extremely common issue.
It got me thinking about how my husband and I work through our parenting differences whilst still ensuring our children are raised with respect. The move towards respectful parenting following Magda Gerber’s Educaring approach wasn’t an easy or smooth transition for either of us but we have definitely come a long way since bumbling through our early days of parenting.
We were once both authoritarian parents. You could say we were on the same page but were in the wrong book. I made the switch to respectful parenting before he did. It made sense, as I was the primary caregiver so I had a vested interest in making the changes necessary to jump on board the respectful parenting train.
Once I was convinced of the value in the Educaring approach, I wanted to introduce the idea to my husband. I recognised early on that I would definitely need the support of my other half to become a more consistent respectful parent and it would be important for the children to have parents with similar parenting goals and approaches.
The process was a gradual one but these were the strategies I found most helpful to ensure our parenting goals and ideals complimented each other.
To introduce my husband to the idea of changing up our parenting approach, I first told him about a really interesting article I had read that I wanted him to take a look at. It was by Janet Lansbury (this was the one) and deeply resonated with some of the parenting concerns we were having at the time. His initial reaction to sending it to him was positive so I sent him a couple more.
He would diligently read them and then we would have a conversation about what that concept would look like in practise with our children. Specifically, we would discuss recent incidences and reflect on how we could approach them differently the next time something similar occurred. I even had a notebook to jot down ideas and phrases we wanted to use.
I was careful to ensure these reflections were inclusive of both of us and not just critical of him. It can feel confronting and frustrating having someone always criticising your parenting whilst you’re neglecting to do the same of your own. We needed to be in it together and by modelling self-reflection, it meant my husband was more receptive to doing the same.
To balance out the criticism, upon having discussed a change we were wanting to make in our approach, we would then enjoy hearing each other’s success stories from moments in our days. We were both encouraged by the positive outcomes we were seeing and celebrated each other’s achievements.
Modeling, Modeling, Modeling
It can take a long time to undo old habits. My husband was parenting based on 40 years of perceptions and beliefs founded in his own childhood. These are incredibly hard to break and, coupled with learning a completely new method, there needed to be adequate time for him to process and digest what he now needed to do. It was much better for him to jump on board when HE made the decision to do so rather than have me push him into. In the meantime, by modeling the approach daily, he was able to see how it looked and become more convinced of the benefits.
Seeing respectful parenting modeled in various situations, also gave my husband a visual on what to do; the wording, tone and body language etc. It normalised what was otherwise a weird and foreign concept, when he saw and heard it being done in the same way every time. It also worked the other way around. There are still times, I am inspired by some of the interactions he has with the children.
I found that modeling respectful interactions was even effective in encouraging other family members to adopt the approach. It’s hard not to be inspired to want the same connected relationship that this approach ultimately leads to.
Listening to podcasts
Another great tool we have at our fingertips these days are podcasts and audiobooks. The best thing about podcasts is they don’t require time to dedicate to listening to them. They can be played whilst doing chores in the home, during the daily commute or even through headphones whilst mowing the lawn.
Listening to this podcast, in which Tina Payne Byson, co-author of The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, talks about the role of the brain in a child’s growth and development really helped my husband (and even my Mum) to start internalising the change in approach from authoritarian to respectful parenting. It gives some great real life examples and I think he really appreciated the scientific-based understanding of this way of seeing and interacting with children
There’s something about hearing other people talk about the ins and outs of respectful parenting that gives it more credibility. It’s always more articulate, convincing and inspiring coming from someone else. For my husband, putting a podcast on to listen to on his drive to work was achievable and there was nothing for him to lose while doing it.
Since then he has listened to Janet Lansbury’s best seller: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame on audio several times as well as some of her Unruffled podcasts on Soundcloud or iTunes. Listening to these together on a car trip is also really helpful for us both, sparking healthy discussion about our goals as parents and what we want for our children.
Being empathetic to a partner’s triggers
Making the shift to respectful parenting has been hard at times. Certain parts of the Magda Gerber Educaring approach came easily to both of us but there was a lot I struggled with and even more that my husband found difficult. Understanding the things that trigger each other helps us both know when extra support might be needed.
For my husband, it seemed that emotions and particularly emotions around discipline were a big deal. When the children directly defied him, it caused tension in him that he found difficult to rise above. Now, although I am far from perfect, I found myself getting upset with him for getting upset at the children. It didn’t make for a united team and caused little rifts to develop.
When I reflected on this, I realised that in adopting a respectful parenting approach, not only are we fighting our own upbringing and the child-ist type values we had instilled into us as children, we are also fighting many social norms.
For example, emotions are widely accepted from women whilst for men, being emotional can be considered a sign of weakness. The phrase, “Stop crying like a girl!” exemplifies this idea. It’s not considered manly for boys to cry and it is common to hear fathers telling their young sons to stop blubbering etc and it is likely these fathers were told the same as children.
Now, of course, this is a gross generalisation but I know many women who speak of their husbands bottling up their emotions and it is certainly true of mine. It has been difficult for my husband to be fully accepting of big emotions from our children for this reason. To emphasise with and hold space for emotions doesn’t come as naturally for him as it does for me (and even I struggle sometimes).
There are times when my husband would rather avoid an upset and make a game or a joke out of a charged situation so as to skirt around the emotions that would have otherwise spilled.
Similarly, there is an outdated social notion that men are the leaders and are to be obeyed which could still hold a small but significant influence over our husbands. My husband often jokingly comes out with “You will respect my authoritah!” (I have no idea how to spell that and I think it must come out of a movie or something) and even though he is clearly saying it tongue in cheek, there is an element of belief when it comes to this in real life when I see the children challenging his authority and him getting triggered by it.
Understanding these potential influences has certainly helped us both in unpacking our triggers in order to be more mindful of them. It also allows us both to be more forgiving of each other and offer support rather than chastisement.
Having a pre-determined agreement to tag team
Staying mindful and responding with respect to our three children is not easy for my husband or myself. Our children test us. They know which buttons to push to get a reaction and although we have done a LOT of work at lessening our triggers over the years, we are not fail-safe; we are human. What DOES help us, though, is having our partner to step in and help when our authoritarian instinct and our triggers start to take the reigns.
My husband and I have a pact whereby, if one of us hears a crack in tone, a terseness in voice, a tension in body language etc start to come over the other, we move close and offer a tag team. It is helpful that this is a pre-determined arrangement as it means we are both less defensive and more accepting and grateful when we do this for each other.
it’s a simple tap on the shoulder followed by “Would you like a tag team?” or “Wanna swap jobs for a bit?” It gives us a chance to walk away and regroup before we end up causing damage to our parent-child relationship. It’s a relief to have this back up. Sometimes we will give each other a heads up that we may need a tag if we are already feeling at the end of our rope.
I talk about how this looks in practise in this article: Working in Partnership to Get through a Toddler Meltdown
Displaying mantra posters
There are so many nuances in respectful parenting that I believe can take years to fully appreciate and understand. In the early days of becoming a respectful parent, however, I found it very useful both for my husband and myself to have phrases and mantras posted around the house to refer to. This helped us think of better words to use on the spot and also served as encouragement and inspiration for staying mindful when the going was getting tough.
I started with helpful signs like:
Expressing emotions… “You sound upset/ You wanted to do xyz”
Setting limits… “I won’t let you / I don’t want you to…”
I then added reminders such as:
Her hard time is harder than my hard time
Pause a moment; see what happens
Be a kind, confident leader
Hear the messages in the behaviours
Be the person you needed when you were little
Model, model, model
Tune in to her perspective before offering your own
I found that having these posted in various places around the house not only served as encouragement for my husband and myself, they also served as conversation starters with friends or family who were visiting; bridging the gap a little.
Appreciate the gifts a partner brings
Since discovering Madga Gerber’s approach to parenting many years ago, I have been fairly hell bent in following that philosophy to a tee. I have studied and practised and checked and restudied and repractised. I’m quite proud of where I am at considering where I came from. At times, this singular focus has meant that the way I have viewed my husband’s interactions with the children has been overly critical.
It is helpful to remember that there is value in two different parents. Our children will learn to take what they need from each of us and appreciate or, at least, put up with the rest. My husband is the fun lover. He’s the aeroplane rides to bed whilst I am panicking about the over-stimulation. He’s the sneaky extra book as I anxiously look at the clock and worry about a change in routine. He’s the late afternoon rides up and down the footpath unperturbed by the risk of overtiredness. He’s the practical joker/ trickster as I worry about the impact of being untruthful.
He balances out my seriousness. Our children are getting the best of both worlds. I have learned to let go (well, mostly) of my need to have everything done a certain way, my way. There are a few non-negotiables (avoiding punitive discipline, savouring care giving experiences etc) but otherwise having some parenting differences is healthy for a child’s rounded upbringing.
Creating a respectful parenting partnership takes time and communication. Being open to talking through challenges together is critical in finding the common ground our children need, but it is important to be respectful of each others process to get there.
How have you supported your partner to make a parenting change?
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury