Co-parents who come to me for co-parent coaching often ask me to help them resolve conflicts involving differences in parenting styles and difficulty agreeing on decisions surrounding the children. While some conflicts can be resolved, for others, co-parents must come to terms with having less control and influence over their children following a divorce or separation. This article offers a tool to help coparents manage different co-parenting styles.

Aside from the custody agreement and parenting schedule, other sources of co-parenting conflict surrounding parenting decisions stem from differences in:

  • the children’s daily routines between households
  • disciplinary approaches
  • educational and healthcare decisions
  • socialization practices
  • the children’s use of technology
  • extra-curricular activities (sports, hobbies, etc.) the children engage in

To help parents get their arms around these concerns so they can be managed between them, I ask each parent to make three lists:

  1. A list of parenting choices and decisions they believe parents must agree on
  2. A list of parenting choices and decisions they do not believe parents must agree on
  3. A list of parenting choices and decisions they are willing to defer to the other parent

These lists capture each parent’s expectations regarding the amount of control and influence they have over their children as divorced parents.

After parents create their lists, I review them separately with each parent to clarify what they mean and expect by each item. As we review their lists, I help them evaluate the importance of each item and begin to differentiate between preferences and must-haves.

At first, most parents view nearly everything on their list as something they must agree on. In reality, they are afraid of relinquishing control over these things. Let’s face it. Parenting is a very personal and territorial practice. Just as in nature, parents see themselves as their children’s protectors and primary teachers. They are instinctively driven to teach the children what they need to know to survive and thrive in life.

With the children’s very survival on the line, parents take their jobs extremely seriously and will not readily concede control over parenting choices. But the reality is that parenting after a split is unavoidably different than parenting for intact couples.

For starters, parents who are no longer together typically live in two separate homes. As children spend some portion of their time in each home, they follow the routines, schedule, and preference of the parent at the head of each household. And since styles and preferences differ among people, the child’s experience may be quite different at each home. Some co-parents find this hard to accept. It may even leave them feeling like they are failing their child if they don’t get to make sure things are done the “right way.”

The 3-List exercise gives parents a method to reset their perspectives regarding choices that are simply different vs those that are potentially dangerous to the child. Different isn’t always a bad thing. Isn’t it possible that there is more than one right way to parent? Is it better to be more strict or more permissive with children? Is a parent that raises children to be more independent better than one that is more nurturing? Is a parent who engages in a more active lifestyle better than one who is inclined to more academic, cerebral endeavors? Or are they simply different?

Three Guiding Principles for Categorizing Parenting Decisions

  1. Rules concerning health & safety, the law, and the rights of others must be consistent across homes.
  2. Share preferences but accept the personal choices made by the other parent in their home – exceptions to this include if the child is physically abused, in danger, or unwell (beyond everyday illness).
  3. Comply with the other parent’s preferences if it doesn’t infringe on your rights or go against your values. If they are better at something than you are, wouldn’t it better to defer to their judgment?

Manage Different Co-parenting Styles: List #1 – Decisions Parents Must Agree On

The operative word above is “must.” There are many things I would recommend parents strive to agree on because it will make collaboration easier and more fruitful. But the must-agree-ons are a different animal.

As I stated above, rules concerning health and safety, the law, and rights of others are not negotiable and must be consistent across homes. Are there gray areas even among these? In the broadest definition of these concerns, yes. Health can be a big gray area depending on your beliefs. So for this list, only include rules and practices intended to prevent your kids from being hurt, hurting themselves or hurting others.

Beyond health and safety, the law, and the rights of others lie items that some parents deem more important than others. Religion is a good example. Following the traditions and practices of a particular faith may be as important as following the law for some parents while others are more flexible in their beliefs.

To create your list, write down the parenting choices and decisions that hold the highest importance to you personally. Then ask yourself if your child’s survival, future, or freedom or that of another human being depends on the decisions and choices you make around this topic. If not, it probably belongs in a different list.

Manage Different Co-parenting Styles: List #2 – Decisions Parents Do Not Need to Agree On

This is usually where the conflicts live. One parent believes they must agree on and enforce the same bedtime while another parent doesn’t believe the other parent has any right to impose rules to be followed in the other parent’s home. The reality is, unless there is an explicit agreement or court order for parents to follow a particular bedtime, a parent cannot impose a bedtime on the children while they are with the other parent.

Bedtime is just one example. Others include:

  • Clothing choices
  • How a child’s hair is styled
  • What TV shows and movies the kids watch
  • How much time is spent online and on devices
  • How much a child plays outside
  • Disciplinary choices
  • How children are spoken to (e.g., some parents yell, some don’t)
  • Types of activities the children participate in
  • Choices of toys and games
  • Curfews
  • What a child eats or drinks
  • Amount of exercise a child gets

Of course, if any of the above are spelled out in your parenting agreement or imposed by the legal system, then both parents must comply with those terms or risk being found in contempt of court. Additionally, none of the above can be illegal, dangerous, or in violation of another’s rights. For example, a parent may be stricter, but they may not physically abuse a child.

While it would be preferable for parents to agree on all these things, it is unlikely that choices will be identical from one parent to another. And in most cases, that is okay. There is more than one way to parent.

Create the list of items you do not believe parents must agree on, checking them against the considerations laid out in this article.

Manage Different Co-parenting Styles: List #3 – Decisions a Parent is Willing to Defer to the Other Parent

The point of this list is to recognize that parents should take the lead on the things they are best at and defer to the other parent those subjects they are better positioned to handle. For example, if your co-parent is better than you are at managing finances, maybe they should be the one making parenting decisions involving money. Assess each parent’s talents and relinquish control to the other parent if it makes sense.

How To Manage Different Co-parenting Styles – Guiding Principles

When you two disagree on parenting choices and decisions, consider these strategies to reconcile your differences:

  • Never tell another parent how they should do things in their home. Consider how this would sit with you.
  • It’s ok to share how you do things with your co-parent. But don’t suggest that they must do it your way. Carefully select the words you choose when sharing information with the other parent to avoid triggering conflict.
  • Share what you are doing and ask your co-parent how they manage the same situation. Compare notes. You never know, you may like their way better or they may not have thought of doing it your way.
  • If what they are doing isn’t dangerous, illegal, or violating the rights of others, accept that this is their prerogative.
  • Do not tell your children that the other parent is doing things wrong. This puts your kids in the middle. What are they supposed to do about it? When you denigrate the other parent, you undercut their authority. This can be dangerous if it makes your children less likely to listen to them when stakes are high.
  • You have a right to parent in the way you believe is best. Rather than obsessing over differences with your co-parent that you cannot control, take comfort in having the opportunity to do things your way when your kids are with you.

Want More Co-parenting Help?

If you and your co-parent are struggling to reconcile different co-parenting styles, try completing this 3-list exercise. Compare lists with your co-parent and discuss discrepancies. If there are any differences you two cannot resolve, consider reaching out to a co-parenting coach for help, whether it’s me or someone else you trust.

To learn more about coaching, click here. If you want to check out my bestselling book, Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code, you can read about it here or on Amazon.

Happy Co-parenting!