Conflict Resolution in Parenting: Prevention

CinemaUsher-01A good friend of mine, not realizing how complex a subject it was, and how much work it would be, asked me to write a blog about conflict resolution.

He may no longer be on my good list (coal for Christmas, you!), but for the next few weeks I will be blogging about conflict resolution because he got me thinking. This week is for the groundwork: exploring the issues that are at the root of many conflicts between parents. Next week will be about the most (and least) effective ways to fix those conflicts; after that we can expand into parent-child conflicts and those between children.

The first, most important, and absolutely non-negotiable concrete foundation of conflict resolution between parents is that parents are equal partners, and have to respect each other as such. You chose to have a child together. It is the privilege and responsibility of both to parent. It does not matter if you are married, partners, or single, or if one parent is taller, stronger, richer, smarter, more talented…. That child belongs to both of you and needs both of you. I once saw a child in the post office with a parent on either side holding onto an arm and pulling. Don’t do that. Your child is not a rope in a tug of war.

Conflicts can only be resolved by compromise. If one side wholly wins, the other has no choice but to keep fighting. Both sides have to give a little; both have to feel that they have won something. None of us are always right; we can afford to be flexible. In the end it is far more important that your children see that their parents respect each other, can listen to each other and discuss problems, and are able to compromise, than whether or not their bedtime can be changed, or they can go to a party.

If parents cannot respect each other as equals, that is the lesson their child will absorb, and someday he or she might accept something less than respect from their partner.

The structure we build on that foundation is agreement on common goals. It seems, going into parenting, that we should all have the same obvious goals. We want our child alive, healthy, happy, self-confident… Obvious, yes? It’s amazing how much variation there is within these bounds. Ideally, parents discuss and agree on goals for their children before they actually have any. In reality, many parents discuss religion and not much else.

So, ten things to talk about with your partner before things go ka-BOOM:

  1. Where you will live: Having a child is a lifetime commitment, so this means 20 years of where you will live, not just right now. Talk about location, type of home, whether you want to be near family, if you will move for a better job…  whatever is important to you. Things change, and it is nice to know where your partner stands on the subject ahead of time.
  2. Finance: Children need security to feel safe enough to explore and grow. Financial worries can plant their lives on shifting sands. Sit down together and figure out how much money you make, what you will spend it on, and how you will save for an emergency and the future. Make a budget. Your child does not want to loose a parent over the electric bill.
  3. Diet: You want them to be healthy, right? Not to have diabetes at 12, back pain at 15, and heart disease at 40? That means agreeing on what to feed them, and on being a good example yourself. It also includes not using food for emotional support or rewards. And don’t get me started on using food so that your child will like you better than the other parent.
  4. Routines and schedules: How obsessive are you going to be about homework, meal times, and bedtime routines? Routines can be incredibly helpful: kids don’t argue over something (like bedtime) that is a habit. On the other hand, routines can become rigid and squash all random opportunities and creativity. Where do  you put that balance? Routines work only if both parents are in agreement on them, so talk.
  5. Sleeping arrangements: I have seen more than a few marriages end in an ugly divorce over this one. There is really no moral right or wrong on it, but you must both agree. Just don’t co-sleep with a baby under 6 months. I’ve lost two small patients that way, and never want to lose another. Just don’t.
  6. Education: How important is school? (Guess which side I took on this one) Are some subjects more important than others? Do actual grades and the particular school matter, or is it learning and inspiration that is important? How about learning technical skills versus book learning? How about “useful” skills versus not so obviously useful? Did I mention that I also have an a degree in anthropology? I am married to an engineer. We have discussions.
  7. Careers: Which career choices are acceptable, and which are not? You might want to write these down and then switch lists – surprise! When I was a child, my options were nurse, teacher, or housewife. My mother had crossed “nun” off the list and not replaced it with anything. I was a big surprise.
  8. Athletics: How important are sports? Life ending? Or just done to be well rounded and get exercise? Any particular sport in mind?
  9. Criminal behavior: This is a biggie. Children start out as small barbarians, travel through self-involved, and wander into insecure before they become adults. They will try out hitting, biting, lying and stealing along the way. How will you react? What will you do to discourage this behavior?
  10. Privacy: Children have no legal right to privacy. They have what you give them, and they deserve your protection from their own … lack of insight, so their privacy cannot be absolute. Where is that line? How much do you trust before you verify?

So, I have managed to write a blog on conflict resolution without ever discussing how to resolve a conflict. Hmm. We will do that next week. First and foremost: respect your partner and set common goals. Once you have that foundation and framework, everything else falls into place more easily. With a little nudge. Or two.

Build that foundation. If parents endlessly argue and fight, marriages self destruct; if parents cannot treat each other with respect and decide on common goals, children self destruct.

Have that conversation before you need it.

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