Any successful team capitalizes on the unique strengths and talents of its members. Differences among teammates are not erased, but are valued, respected and blended to create a more effective team. With parenting, too often there is a familiar spilt among the teammates where one parent is seen as too soft and the other as too hard on the children.

The danger of polarization

There are two ways to balance a see-saw—the two people can move further apart or closer together. In parenting, there is a strong tendency to do the former. Parent A accuses Parent B of being too mean and Parent B claims Parent A is too weak. Polarization is the intensifying of one’s position in an attempt to balance the two ends of the spectrum.

“She lets the kids get away with murder so I have to be the disciplinarian.” “He constantly says ‘No’ to them so I have to cut them some slack.” The more one parent digs in his or her heels, the more the other parent does the same. As a result the two sides get further and further apart and the team becomes split and adversarial.

Both parents usually have the same goal in mind. They want the children to have a healthy blend of the sweet and the sour. The problem is that the parents become too specialized, too singularly focused on only one side of the recipe. So one parent becomes the spokesperson for the importance of love and safety, flexibility and fun, comfort and joy. The other parent becomes the lead representative for rules and discipline, manners and self-control, work ethic and responsibility.

Brief psychoanalysis

It is helpful for parents to gain insight as to what their style is and where it came from. Whether you are the firm parent or the soft parent, the intensity of your allegiance to that position is likely to be connected to the intensity of the parenting environment you were raised in. Growing up in a harsh environment, some will focus on the need to protect the vulnerable and may later become the softer parent. “My kids will never feel as alone, afraid and unloved as I did.” Raised in the same harsh environment, others will focus on the need to strengthen the vulnerable and may later become the firmer parent. “My kids will never feel as weak, helpless, dependent and unable to fend for themselves as I did.”

Bridging the great parenting divide

If you are in a polarized parenting split, start with a willingness to see that there is probably some truth to the complaints that the other parent has about your style. Rather than fighting against that feedback, have the courage to accept and embrace the parts of it that are true. Children need both, the soft and the firm. But getting 100% of the soft from Parent A and 100% of the firm from Parent B is not the best approach. Children need to know they can get the soft and the firm from each parent. So the soft parent needs to practice being a little stronger and the firm parent needs to warm up a bit. As always, work hard on your part and try not to keep score on the other parent.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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