Care and Feeding

How Do My Ex and I Reconcile Our Completely Opposite Parenting Styles?

I’m hands-off, he’s hands-on. Our differences are affecting the kids’ behaviors.

A mother and father facing off, with a young boy between them tying his shoe.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah Lemieux every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have been split up for three years. For that entire time, we have shared 50-50 custody of our kids, ages 4 and 6, with alternating weeks. For the past month and a half, we have shifted to two weeks at each house because of COVID-19. We are on OK terms; we don’t like to talk any longer than we have to and our communication is typically limited to handling logistics or addressing challenges with our kids.

One of the reasons we split up in the first place, and a problem that is even worse now, is our massive difference in parenting style. I prefer a more hands-off style where I give them the space to make their own choices and mistakes but where I am there to help pick them up when they fall, whereas he prefers an overbearing style where he affords them little autonomy and tries to prevent them from ever making mistakes and learning from them. While I respect his parenting choices, our differences are significantly affecting our kids. My issue is that he prefers doing things for them rather than helping them learn to do them themselves, whereas I teach them how to do things as soon as they’re ready. This means that at my house, they are expected to clean up their messes, get out their own snacks, wash their dishes when they’re done, and pick out their own appropriate outfits and dress themselves. However, at his house, he does these things for them himself because he doesn’t think they’re capable. This means that they mostly lay around at his house and don’t learn responsibility.

For instance, I have been trying to teach the 6-year-old how to tie her shoes for months, but at Dad’s house, she will either be given Velcro shoes or he will tie them for her. The 4-year-old is capable of dressing himself with some support, but my ex prefers to just do it for him, which has not helped our son master his challenges with buttons and zippers. Also, since the kids have internalized that they can be a lot lazier at Dad’s, they complain incessantly about having responsibilities when they’re with me. I want to respect the fact that my ex is his own person who will make his own parenting choices, but we also need to break this cycle of learned helplessness. What to do?

—Two Homes, Two Philosophies

Dear THTP,

I understand that you and your husband prefer (perhaps out of necessity) to limit your interaction, but unless it is unsafe to do so, it’s really past time for a chat between the two of you about what sort of compromises may be necessary in order for your kids to have as seamless a transition between the two homes as possible. Talk to him about your concerns, being careful not to present them as a value judgment (i.e., “You let the kids have too much XYZ,” “Because they have no structure with you, they come back to me acting like…”) but instead, a challenge that the two of you are well aware of (“It’s no secret that we have different styles of parenting. Unfortunately, I’m finding that it’s a lot harder to enforce some of the rules and behaviors that I’d prefer for my home than I’d like it to be and I think that our inability to make some compromises about what is and isn’t acceptable in our respective spaces has a lot to do with that”).

Your husband may feel that 6-year-olds simply ought to have their shoes tied for them and that 4-year-olds should be dressed by their parents. He also may simply lack the patience or bandwidth to teach these skills to them himself. It may be the case that he’s letting the kids relax more because he’s thinking about how their little spirits have been affected by the disruption to their lives. He also might just be a lazy parent. But regardless of the root cause, you need to find some common ground, seek any concessions that you both are willing to make in order to support each other’s parenting, and establish a sense of unity and consistency as a parenting team.

Even if your husband isn’t willing to drastically change his ways, he can and should support you in your efforts to enforce your rules in your home, and vice versa. In the absence of any significant new household policies and behaviors, at the very least each of you must make it clear to the kids that you expect them to provide both parents with the utmost respect and to abide by the guidelines for whichever house they are at during any given time period.