How coparents interact and communicate with each other is more important than their actual involvement in kids' lives, experts say.
There was an unbreakable rule when I was growing up: “If you ask one parent for something and get an answer, you may not ask the other parent for the same thing.” The idea was to avoid disagreement between my parents. It was a priority for them to remain a united front in raising us kids. Now that I have my own family, I recognize this as an example of good coparenting.
There is not enough discussion about coparenting in general. Far more attention is given to actual parenting and the relationship with a child, i.e. strategies for discipline, creation of routines, setting expectations. But it’s the relationship between two coparents – whether they’re the married or divorced biological or adoptive parents of a child, a blend of single mom or dad with his/her own parent’s assistance, or an involved grandparent or aunt – that is arguably more important.
According to a University of Florida paper called “When People Parent Together: Let’s Talk About Coparenting,” written by James McHale, Jason Baker, and Heidi Liss Radunovich, the degree of involvement parents have in their kids’ lives matters less than how well the coparents communicate with each other.
“In over a dozen studies, problems with coparenting during the infant, toddler, preschool, and elementary school years have been related to a wide variety of child problems, including problems with social adaptation, poorer preschool and school achievement, anxiety, and aggressiveness. Moreover, well-coordinated coparenting during the child’s first year of life has been found to predict better child adjustment in later years, while distressed coparenting predicts later child problems.”
Personality differences are a good thing, as long as coparents can discuss and resolve those differences, understand the other’s perspective, value the skills of the other coparent, and share a common goal for how to raise kids. If not, instability ensues. Typically, one coparent withdraws from the relationship and leaves responsibilities to the other coparent, which has a detrimental effect on both adult and child; or each coparent continues to do their own thing, violating the other’s efforts and rules.
So how can one be a better coparent?
As the UF experts write in their paper, communication is key, in order to build a strong alliance. That alliance should not be undermined by criticizing the other coparent in front of a child or making nasty verbal swipes.
Flexibility and compromise are necessary, and no coparent should always be right. In the case of disagreement, work to come to a conclusion that both parties can agree on.
Positive reinforcement and recognition of each coparent’s unique skills will make for a better relationship.
As my mother likes to say, “The only constant in parenting is change.” The coparenting relationship will evolve over time, shaped by a child’s personality, marital dynamics, and shifting expectations, but the most important thing is to keep working together.
Read the full paper here.