Ever heard comments like these at your house?
“Mom, guess what. Dad let us ride his motorcycle with no helmet on.”
“You committed to how many weeks of piano lessons? It’s the middle of summer! Can’t you let the kids have a break?”
“So what? He just had a little food coloring and a bit of sugar. I ate that cereal when I was a kid, and I’m still alive.”
Disagreements about what is safe and beneficial for kids strain even the best marriages. He thinks jumping from the rooftop into a swimming pool is a rite of passage. She thinks it’s child abuse. She wants to take out a second mortgage to pay for private Christian school. He wants to save so they can retire before age 82. He objects to letting the twin girls wear makeup in middle school. She’s already bought them their first eye-shadow palette.
The danger is to let differing parenting perspectives wear down marital unity, especially if you side with the child’s desires and not your spouse’s.
Parenting decisions can be win-win
Because marriage is a team sport, the goal of every marriage decision should be for each spouse to win. If only one wins, there’s no team and there must be a loser. And if either spouse loses, then both spouses ultimately lose.
To successfully arrive at a win-win solution in parenting decisions, the couple needs to be truly unified. This takes a lot of what I call “heart talk,” deep conversations in which longings, desires, fears and emotions are discussed in a safe, caring environment. If a couple has built this kind of trust, making win-win parenting decisions becomes attainable.
Let’s examine an example involving bungee-jumping. Dad is at the state fair with the kids. All day the 14-year-old has been eyeing the bungee-jumping platform, which is 130 feet tall and can be seen from any spot at the fair. They finally pass by the bungee-jumping loading area. Dad finds out that by signing a release form, he can allow the teen to plunge off the platform and rebound several times while dangling upside down from a 40-foot enhanced rubber band. Dad calls Mom’s cellphone to get her permission, but she doesn’t answer. Dad thinks the bungee-jumping experience looks fun, and he wants to make it a cornerstone memory with the 14-year-old. And since he can’t reach Mom, he signs the waiver and pays the $100 fee. Moments later, his cellphone jingles with Mom’s special ring. The teen wheedles Dad not to answer, reminding him that Mom is “over-the-top cautious,” disapproving of Netflix, hot dogs and public hot tubs.
What should he do?
Why parenting decisions are difficult
Making parenting decisions that both spouses agree to — especially regarding safety — is difficult because each spouse is wired uniquely and approaches situations from a differing viewpoint. Diverse ideas, backgrounds and experiences bring a continuum of decision-making matrices, and no couple can foresee all the possible scenarios much less agree on the best possible choice in each of them.
But if a couple agrees to ground rules and specific marriage priorities, making parenting choices can become a win-win for couples. If a couple has learned “heart talk,” they are able to give value to their spouse’s feelings and have committed to unity in marriage and with Christ as the ultimate objectives.
Additionally, hold to the fact that you’re married for life and the children are merely passing through. Placing a high value on pleasing your spouse rather than a child can greatly improve your odds of having a happy marriage over time. That’s a win for both of you. Also, realize that each time you override your spouse’s preferences, feelings or values, you override his or her trust, making future decisions even more difficult because the marriage unity has eroded. That’s a loss for both of you.
The bungee-jumping scenario is one example of why I teach couples never to compromise but to keep seeking a win-win. In this situation, how would you ask a spouse to relax on a safety issue? It just isn’t going to work as there’s no way for the more cautious spouse to see a win-win if he or she believes a child’s welfare is at stake. Instead, I challenge couples to keep working on a decision until they can identify their top priorities and keep looking for creative solutions to attain those goals.
The end of the couple disagreement on the bungee-jumping scenario
Dad must pick up the phone. To intentionally deny a spouse input because the other doesn’t want to be troubled with his or her opinions, feelings and preferences will interfere with the relationship. The willingness to put in the hard work to resolve conflict through heart talk is essential for any couple to experience a win-win.
In this scenario, Dad talks to Mom even though he’s a bit uneasy, half expecting Mom’s fear to translate into anger. And, as predicted by the 14-year-old, Mom does not support the bungee-jumping idea, fearing retinal or spinal cord damage could result. However, she is calm and willing to hear the merits of the idea.
Through healthy discussion with no accusations levied, Dad admits that his desire to let the 14-year-old jump has less to do with the adventurous nature of the experience and more to do with creating a special father-child bond. Mom and Dad agree to budget money and set aside time for a special weekend away for Dad and the 14-year-old. This creates a win-win in the long run. Mom’s win is knowing her child is safe, and Dad wins by getting support for his goal of having an even better bonding experience with the teen.
The marriage relationship itself is the true winner, however. Mom’s trust in the heart-talk process has grown, especially since she now knows that Dad is willing to forfeit $100 to validate her value of safety first. And as trust builds, so do options for resolving future conflict.
Does the 14-year-old lose? Maybe, but only in the short run. Seeing parents model healthy conflict resolution and learning delayed gratification are two of the best gifts any parent can give a child. Over time, that’s a huge win for everyone.
Robert S. Paul, licensed professional counselor, is vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. He is the director and creator of the Hope Restored marriage intensive counseling program and is a co-author of The DNA of Relationships for Couples.
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