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How Collaborative Parenting can save Your Relationship

Over the last fifty years the fabric of our society has been stretched, twisted and patched to the extent that not much remains of the organisational structure that defined the relationships of our parents and grandparents. When it comes to relationships- anything goes! Both men and women work and the traditional gender roles of wife the homemaker and husband the breadwinner hold a minority status. Lacking guidelines, a book of instructions, or realistic Ken and Barbie dolls for them to model many couples follow an ad hoc process and define their relationship as they live from day to day.

And this in many cases bar a few hiccups works quite well for awhile. It is with the birth of the children that chaos strikes and the administrative functioning of the relationship may be disrupted.

Some couples have methodically prepared for the arrival of their children. They have talked at length on how they see the role of parent, and have organised their responsibilities down to the last detail. They stand as a united front ready to tackle all the challenges of parenthood, from the early years through to the teenage years and beyond.

Other couples after the initial shock that their bundle of joy brings them seem to bravely move forward as they muddle through the sleepless nights, the incessant “I want” of the toddler years and the excitement and wonderment of the pre school experience. They may not always agree with all the responses their partner has to their child’s behaviours but life rushes by and things get done without too many crises, so why ‘rock the boat’. They may occasionally argue over what they see as the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to raise children, but for now this is okay.

This ‘okay’ period may go on indefinitely if the couple fall into a pattern in which one partner takes on the dominant role and the other happily follows their lead.

But this does not work for all couples particularly as their children make their presence more and more obvious by their incessant demands and intrusive behaviours. Eventually these couples may begin to notice that their parenting views are very dissimilar, and that they are at loggerheads on how to raise their children.

One parent may have trouble coping with the noise and rowdy behaviour of their children; while the other partner may think children need to make noise and a mess in order to express themselves and grow. A more laissez faire parenting style may not see the need for rules, whereas a more authoritarian approach may demand more parental control and a range of rules. And one parent may not see the benefit of delegating chores or responsibilities, while the other parent sees the sharing of household chores as central to the family structure and their children’s development.

Eventually the discord and disharmony raised by these disagreements begins to interfere with the relationship itself.

Karl and Cassie after 7 years of marriage found this to be the case in their relationship.

Karl and Cassie’s Story

Karl and Cassie were experiencing difficulty on how to parent their two boys, Jason 6 years old and Nigel 5. Although there had been apparent differences when the boys were younger a lot of effort had been made by both partners to be more accepting and tolerant of their individual views. It was only in the last two years that Karl and Cassie began to realise that they were arguing all the time over the boys and were not enjoying their time together.

While listening to Karl and Cassie it became quite clear that here we had a couple whose personalities and parenting styles were very different. Karl was a very structured, organised and tidy man. He did not take well to spontaneity and liked to know what was happening from when he woke up until he went to bed. His environment needed to be organised with everything in its place as he tended to feel overwhelmed with clutter and disorder.

Cassie was the opposite. It was not that she deliberately created clutter and chaos but could function quite well in it. She was constantly working on many projects at one time, and could on the spur of the moment stop what she was doing if she thought of something better to do or was offered an exciting invitation. She used much of her energy on the children and even when she started back at work when Nigel was three she always took the children on exciting adventures on weekends.

Prior to having their children Karl and Cassie had never really discussed their views on parenting, and at this stage in their relationship they were beyond discussing and were regularly arguing.

While Cassie let the boys stay up late playing or watching videos Karl insisted on a set bed time. While Cassie encouraged all expression of feelings Karl demanded proper decorum and believed that in many situations children should be seen and not heard. And while Karl insisted that the boys help around the house- to their abilities- Cassie felt that they were children and that there was still time for them to start being responsible.

The only point they agreed on was that they needed some help in reaching a common ground on how to raise their children before the children destroyed their relationship. They both realised that there would be a need for give and take and they were ready to do the work.

Six Tips on How to Parent Collaboratively

  1. Visit your Values and Past Influences
  2. Find a Common Ground
  3. Accept the Differences
  4. Problem Solve the Differences
  5. Establish Rules
  6. Family Meeting

Visit your Values and Past Influences

When couples are exhausted by the stresses of raising children with a partner who seems to oppose their every action you cannot blame them if they sit in bewilderment wondering “how did we get here?” For them everything at the start of their relationship was blissful and their life together was running smoothly without a hitch. They were getting along so well that their values and beliefs had to be the same and so there was no reason to discuss them. Consequently when this discussion on values was overlooked so was the discussion on their views on parenting.

For some couples this may not be a problem as their values and beliefs are the same. However for others they are quickly shocked into the realisation that just because we love each other that does not mean we see ‘eye to eye’ on all things. So for these couples it may be helpful for them to sit down and discuss the values and beliefs they hold as important when it comes to raising children. They also can explore the source of these values as they discuss their individual childhood experiences and the impact these had on their development.

Although partners have spent numerous hours talking to each other about their likes and dislikes, their family history and their dreams and ambitions they may only be ‘hearing’ for the first time how their partner’s upbringing has moulded their views on parenting.

This type of discussion may provide a wealth of information enabling partners to gain insights into the ‘why’ their partner acts the way they do when it comes to their children. Some partners may have been raised by parents with strict religious beliefs, while others may have experienced and/or witnessed some form of abuse from their parents. In other situations a partner may have grown up in a single parent household and was given many responsibilities from an early age. Their partner may have come from a family in which there was a stay at home mother who tended to do everything for her children.

If one partner has experienced a very strict upbringing in which children behaved properly at all times and were only allowed to speak when spoken to, they may believe that this is the best approach to use for their children. Their partner in turn may have come from a home in which they were allowed to say and do whatever popped into their head and in which noise dominated the household. This partner may want to provide the same freedom for their children. Such was the case for Karl and Cassie.

When Karl and Cassie took time to honestly discuss their own childhood experiences they listened with respect to their two very different stories. They were able to see for the first time that the parenting styles they were adhering to were not deliberate attempts to annoy and frustrate each other but were sincere efforts to do the best by their children. They were modelling their own parenting styles on that of their parents and had not really explored options and discovered any other way to be a parent.

When they both recognised in each other this desire to do the right thing by their children they were able to move forward and Find a Common Ground.

Find a Common Ground

This is quite an important step. It provides the support and stamina the relationship needs to resolve parenting issues in a collaborative manner. A common ground requires the couple to look for any shared views they have when it comes to raising their children. It accepts the fact that there are differences but it focuses on the similarities.

This acceptance is predicated on the couple’s ability to show respect for each other as they keep an open mind in attempting to understand their partner’s beliefs and values. They listen attentively to the rationale behind their parenting style, avoid judgements and work towards a favourable outcome for their relationship and their family.

In this safe environment both partners can search for and acknowledge their points of agreement: whether it be that rules are important, or that childhood is a time for spontaneity and fun, or that children have rights too. Even couples who at first can find no similarities may be able to move forward as they recognise that they do share some common ground in their desire to provide their children a nurturing, growth promoting, healthy environment. This realisation can often open the door to a flow of other similar viewpoints.

Cassie and Karl having realised the impact that their different upbringings had had on their parenting styles were now able to civilly discuss their parenting views, and were able to find some solid points of agreement. They both concurred that nutrition was important as neither of them wanted the boys to succumb to the ills of junk food. As well they both acknowledged the importance of a good education and a disciplined approach to study.

As they further explored their parenting approaches they not only discovered more views they held in common but they also began to  consider that there could be some value in embracing their differences as well.

Accept the Differences

By the time a couple has spent some intimate time together sharing their childhood experiences, gaining a better understanding of their partner’s parenting views, and establishing a common ground upon which to build a co operative parenting style, they hopefully are ready to accept their differences.

Acceptance is not a ‘giving in’, a statement of defeat or a voicing of right or wrong. Acceptance is an embracing of the situation without judging it or fighting it. It is a decision that acknowledges that you feel one way and I feel another way, and that I am no longer going to argue over this and want it to be different. You give up the struggle so that you can take actions to create the results you want.

With acceptance the fighting stops and there is no resistance to the reality of the situation. The differences are accepted as just that, and now we are able to work effectively with them.

This is a three step process:

  • list the differences
  • note the ones that are not major and require only a minor adjustment to be acceptable to the family unit
  • problem solve the differences that cause family and relationship disruption

Karl and Cassie diligently sat together and created a list of what they considered to be their different views on parenting. Using a highlighter they then identified what they considered to be the concerns that could be easily worked through. For example, one of Cassie’s complaints was that Karl never read to the children at night and he never told the boys he loved them. Karl had never experienced such signs of affection or behaviour from his parents and so did not know what to do. He was not against affection, he just needed to learn how to show it, and agreed to follow Cassie’s lead and learn from her.

One of Karl’s complaints concerned his need for the children to have a set bedtime. Cassie once she realised how important this was for Karl, and once she saw how this tied in with their mutual desire for the children to have a good education, was able to negotiate a suitable bed time for both the boys, one allowing for spontaneous changes.

Having practiced their negotiation skills on the easier issues without too much hassle Karl and Cassie were ready to tackle the bigger issues of difference.

Problem Solve the Differences

There are many approaches to problem solving and conflict resolution that can be helpful at this stage but all of them reflect some basic premises:

  • respect each other
  • listen with empathy to each other
  • reflect back what you have heard
  • state your needs

Keeping these principles in mind at all times encourages each partner to be open in expressing their views. The problem is stated and acknowledged as a separate entity to the relationship. So even though it may be Frank who yells and screams at the children all the time. The finger is not pointed at him and both partners work to find solutions for the ‘yelling and screaming’.

It is through creative and free flowing brainstorming that ideas are voiced that may be the answer to the problem. Lists are made of all possible solutions and then these lists are refined further and further until there is an agreement on how to resolve the problem under discussion. A plan is put into place with each person knowing what their responsibilities are in carrying through the solution.

It may be that Frank has thirty minutes to himself each day when he comes home from work before he spends time with the children. While Frank is unwinding his partner is making sure that the children leave him alone. A more relaxed Frank now does not yell and scream at his children. Problem solved.

Karl and Cassie had a number of points that they disagreed on. For example Cassie did not feel that a five and six year old should be required to have any responsibilities in the home. She believed that it was her responsibility as mother to do everything for her children. Karl adamantly believed that the boys were more than ready to take on chores and begin to learn the first steps towards self sufficiency and surviving in the real world. He did not see how this would take away from Cassie’s nurturing role.

At a designated time Karl and Cassie sat down and listened to each other’s views and needs. They had already accepted this difference between them but had also acknowledged their Common Ground in wanting the best for their children, and so they were able to brainstorm a number of possible solutions. By the end of this Problem Solving Session they had agreed that responsibilities would be gradually introduced to the boys. The chores were to be age appropriate and the boys were to have some choice in what responsibilities they undertook. Karl agreed to lighten his manner when discussing chores and would try to take a more fun approach. Cassie agreed that chores were a good thing for the boys and as long as Karl never lost his temper she would stand by him in ensuring the boys carried through on their responsibilities.

Once couples have acknowledged their similarities, accepted their differences and then problem solved them, they are ready to add Household Rules and the Family Meeting to their collaborative parenting approach.

Household Rules

The function of these rules is to provide order to the chaos that can exist if everyone did what they wanted anytime they wanted. These rules establish guidelines and boundaries that structure the dynamics of the family, and they foster learning experiences for children as they grow through the stages of childhood.

Some points to consider:

  • rules are realistic and achievable
  • they serve a positive function
  • there is room for flexibility when enforcing rules
  • rules are to be reviewed when necessary
  • when children are little parents are the drafters of the rules but children have some say and gain more say the older they become
  • rules can change as do household needs
  • if possible bring a fun component to the rules
  • rules can be discussed in the Family Meeting

Some rules include:

  • breakfast and dinner are eaten together as a family
  • a regular time for bed
  • homework completed before TV and computer game time
  • chores to be completed before other activities undertaken
  • no eating allowed in bedrooms
  • no TV during the school week
  • playing limited to the rumpus room and outdoors
  • and so on

Karl and Cassie were able to compress all the work they had done so far in their attempts to parent collaboratively into a set of rules which they both agreed with. This was a major step forward for them as they now had a framework which would enable them to manoeuvre through the day to day joys and tribulations of raising a family. All that was needed now was a forum in which they could discuss ideas, values, complaints and plans for family work and play on a regular basis.

Family Meeting

The Family Meeting is just this forum. It creates an opportunity for all family members to present their views on how the family is operating and on whether the rules are working well or are in a need of an adjustment. Family members can also plan fun events and holidays and keep each other updated on upcoming school or family happenings.

The Family Meeting serves as a lifeline for couples trying to stay on course with their collaborative parenting approach. For children it is the opportunity for them to be involved in the rule setting process.

Family meetings should be held regularly at a specified time. A box can be strategically placed so that all family members can deposit their ideas and topics for discussion in it. If possible all family members should have a turn in chairing these meetings. Very young children may need the assistance of a parent.

During these meetings parents can model reflective listening skills, the use of ‘I’ language and problem solving techniques. At all times it is best to focus on the primary goal of family meetings which is communication and agreement. These meetings are a time to discuss family business, air problems and plan fun things. They should end on a positive and encouraging note.

Karl and Cassie loved the idea of such meetings.

They decided that both Nigel and Jason were old enough to be participants and explained to them that these meetings could provide a ‘safe place’ in which they could discuss any problems they were experiencing. Also they emphasised that they could use meetings to plan fun activities and holidays. It was decided that these meetings were to be held on Friday evenings and at the end of each meeting the family would have a special dinner such as fish and chips or pizza.

Children have the ability to both break or make a relationship. They can bring to the family unit an amazing amount of joy and happiness, but they can also contribute to its dissatisfaction. Their intent is not to harm or be a source of disturbance and it is up to their parents to make sure this never happens. United in their love for their children and equipped with the skills and techniques of collaborative parenting couples should never reach the point in which their children get in the way of their own relationship.

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