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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Most of our clients are familiar with the concept of “co-parenting.” It implies that after divorce the separated parents continue to parent together. While it is true that they continue to parent, it is often not together. We hear concerns from parents while constructing a parenting plan that safeguards are necessary because the other parent doesn’t parent well or safely. In our therapy practices, we frequently work with children of divorce where parents are advisory participants. Often they express fears for their children because of the other parent’s lack of good judgment.
The truth is that different parenting styles are the rule, not the exception, when children live in two homes. Aside from situations of illegal or abusive acts by one parent, the law provides wide boundaries for parental judgment – even poor judgment. The complaining parent has little recourse when objecting to the other parent’s style. Because of the frustration that may occur we describe the situation (we believe more accurately) as parallel parenting.
In parallel parenting the parents share many characteristics in the responsibilities for the health and welfare of their children. Each is responsible for providing the necessary nurture and socialization for each child. They may even share the same goals (i.e., teach responsibility, respect, resiliency, etc.). It is easy to draw parallels in this regard. However, the methods may differ. Responsibility can be taught by providing the opportunity for children to experience and learn from the consequences of their acts. It can also be taught by providing rewards for responsible behavior and punishments for irresponsible behaviors. Both methods are in use and represent different means to a similar end.
Even goals may vary. One parent may be invested in their children developing “toughness” as a survival skill. The other parent may be invested in developing warmth and caring as a social skill. While neither is wrong, it may present conflict with each other. Parallel parenting recognizes that there are differences, neither has control over the other, and concentrating on their own relationship with the children will usually produce the best results.