Friday, February 18, 2011

Nothing wrong with a little parental diversity

An article in yesterday’s Boston Globe about differing parenting styles and the arguments that sometimes result between mothers and fathers made me smile – and made me realize how long I’ve now been a parent. In the early months and years, these issues seem so important; as kids grow older, at least in my household, I dwell so much less on the differences in parenting styles between my spouse and me.

But that realization inspired me to wonder just why this is. Is it that over the twelve and a half years since our firstborn arrived, my husband and I have become more similar in parenting techniques? Is it because I’m used to our differences now and don’t notice them as much? Or is it that a decade-plus of parenting has taught me an inevitable and also invaluable lesson that the parents interviewed in this story don’t necessarily seem to have incorporated just yet: it doesn’t really matter all that much if Dad orders takeout pizza and forgets to serve fresh vegetables with it a couple of times a month, while Mom insists on three food groups per meal?

To the contrary, I would argue that when parents differ in their approaches, kids gain their very first insights into diversity and begin to perceive that not everyone is the same and not every adult looks at things the same way.

Had anyone told me during my first pregnancy that my son as a pre-teen would follow in his father's footsteps with an abiding interest in fantasy novels about knights and dragons, playing baseball, and competing with his friends in online video games, I would have blanched. Imagining early in my daughter’s infancy that by the age of eight she would know the difference between a Quarter Pounder and a Junior Whopper, thanks to Dad’s occasional drivethrough forays, would have been equally horrifying to me. And what’s more, he introduced them to American Idol and Survivor!

On the other hand, there are some aspects of his approach to parenting that I could only dream of emulating. When Dad says “Time for bed,” they go to bed; they don’t pull out five or six books that they expect him to read aloud the way they do when I’m in charge of bedtime. And even if he neglects to serve salad when he’s in charge of dinner, when he tells them to take their vitamins, they take their vitamins; when I give the same order, they begin vocally tallying how many days in a row they’ve gone without skipping a vitamin so could this day please be the exception to the rule.

But it’s not only about who has the more authoritarian voice. They also know that if I take them to the pool, they can play and swim all they want while I sit on the deck and read, whereas if it’s my husband in charge of the expedition, he’ll be in the water throwing them around and initiating diving contests.

My kids are eight and twelve now, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities – though certainly not as many as I might ultimately wish for them – to note the ways in which people think differently, operate differently, react differently. My guess is that for plenty of children, the differences between their parents are their first inkling as to how this works. Yes, being one hundred percent unified on every aspect of parenting may be a typical goal of expectant parents. But I imagine most learn quickly, as we did, how unrealistic that is. And in time, perhaps they too come to see that their kids end up all the better for it.

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