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Parenting from the Same Page

Informally, you could have another couple over and ask how they handle issues like time-outs or tantrums. This can be reassuring: behind what appears to be the perfect family is usually a messy reality that looks a lot like your own. Even if you don't get any new techniques, there's the calming sense of perspective that you are grappling with a normal-range problem and if you hang in there, things will work out like they have for countless other parents. But avoid getting drawn into a fight, whether it's yours - or theirs!

Parenting is still more art than science, but in the last thirty years, much excellent research has established some of the facts of optimal child rearing.... Disputes can be resolved or at least clarified by finding out what science has discovered about that aspect of raising kids. But keep in mind that many disagreements are fundamentally about values and cannot be resolved by facts alone, that each child is an individual who may differ from the average tendency of the groups that are the basis of most studies, and that any parenting expert who sounds completely sure of himself or herself is suspect.

Negotiating your differences. Strong couples negotiate all the time, whether it's how to answer a child's questions about God, or what to watch on TV tonight. It doesn't mean you don't love each other if you sometimes find yourselves striking a bargain like shoppers at a flea market. Getting skillful at negotiation can only serve your marriage - plus help you with your child, whether she's two or twenty. Good books have been written about negotiating in general (e.g., Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury) or for parents in particular (e.g., Why Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It by Roberta Israeloffand Ron Taffel, Ph.D). In our view these are the six essential steps:

  • Know what you want.
  • Establish a favorable foundation.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Respect feelings.
  • Work out the details.
  • Make a commitment.

1. Know what you want. Negotiating is all about wants. To get what you want, you need to know what it is. Our wants are layered, like a parfait, with less important and fleeting desires on top and vital and enduring ones underneath. The deeper you go, the more you will get to what you really want. And the more that you and your husband can talk about what you each really want, the more teamwork and friendship you'll have in your marriage.

Therefore, try to probe beneath the surface of your wishes or complaints - such as being peeved that he routinely comes home late from work - to find the deeper stakes, which in this case might include wanting to feel you matter enough to him that he would care about how his lateness affects you, or that you can trust him to keep his agreements. Try to sort the wants from your childhood into a pile that's separate from those that come from a more adult place within your mind. For example, suppose that people frequently kept you waiting a lot as a kid, you hated the boredom and powerlessness of it, and the strong desire to not let that happen again is getting mixed in with your need as a grown woman for him to get home on time to help you during one of the most stressful times of the day: the mad dash before dinner.

When you acknowledge and accept the child wants, you'll usually feel a softening inside and a nurturing kindness toward yourself. You'll also see ways that the situation you faced as a child was different from the one you're in today. That simple understanding has an amazing power to lower the emotional charge on your wants. When its time to talk about your desires, try telling him the parts that come from your childhood so he can have a better understanding of what's linked in your mind to seemingly small issues, like being fifteen minutes late. Your openness will probably evoke more compassion and support from him - and if it doesn't, you can ask for them.

Take a close look at any thoughts that argue against your wants, such as Oh, it's just not practical for him to get home on time every night. If the thought has merit, it could lead you to adjust your wishes, like telling your partner that you can live with his coming home late one night in five, or that you just want him to give you a call when he knows he's going to be late. But many thoughts are not good friends to us, trying to talk us out of wants that are in fact legitimate, reasonable, and positive. Try to challenge those thoughts like this: Is there really some rule that says I can't ask for that? Would the world come to an end if I got what I wanted? Does he make the same assumptions when it comes to his own wants? Your partner may not give you what you want, but that does not mean it was bad to want it in the first place, or bad to express it. For example, it's reasonable to want your husband to be more supportive when you are struggling with a preschooler's tantrums. It is valid to want him to use a different tone of voice while disciplining a child. It is completely okay to want him to do something within his own head, like clearing his mind of work clutter during the drive home so he can be mentally present and ready for kid-action when he walks through the door.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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