When different parenting styles affects your friendships

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She waxes lyrical about the joys of being a stay-at-home-mom. You couldn’t wait to get back to work. Her kid plays with wooden spoons and homemade playdough. Yours is a whiz on the iPad. Hers drinks almond milk (made from scratch). Yours likes milkshakes.

Ah, tomato, tomahto, what’s a difference or two among friends? Well, for some people, conflicting parenting styles can be a real deal breaker.

Often, it’s something seemingly small that causes a friendship to fade to black. “A point of contention for me is mothers who try to protect their kids from germs so much that you never get to see them,” says Sarah Bancroft, a Vancouver mom with two daughters ages five and nine. “What family doesn’t have at least one kid with the sniffles at all times in the winter?”

Other times, it’s something more prickly that causes a split. “When a woman I socialized with at the playground, who didn’t know my views on vaccinations, blurted out that another mom we know ‘should be shot’ for not immunizing her children, I knew the friendship was done,” says Serena Grant*, an anti-jab mom from Toronto.

“Some parenting topics can be as loaded as politics and religion,” says Maureen Dennis, the founder of WeeWelcome.ca, an online community for new and expectant parents, and a mother of four. She’s seen many a dispute over discipline get as heated as a caucus debate.

The choices we make as parents—cloth versus disposable, breast versus bottle, to circumcise or not—reveal so much about our values, character and upbringing. It’s little wonder we take it personally when a friend makes a quip about the fact that we let our four-year-old daughter wear nail polish and play with Barbie.

“From day one you feel your choices as a parent are being judged,” says Dennis. “Sometimes, all it takes is that one dirty look or negative comment from a friend or potential friend to instantaneously ruin a relationship or the opportunity of having one.”

Stoking the fire is the current craze for parenting labels, says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto psychotherapist and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids.

Today’s labels—Slacker, Soccer, Tiger Mom—have created a crisis of confidence, she says, and have put pressure on parents to feel that they need to constantly measure up. Can I compete with my fellow free-ranger? My high school BFF has turned into an overzealous Helicopter Mom, can we still be friends? Add to that the fact that the definition of good parenting is always changing, no wonder former besties find themselves eyeing each other warily across the sandbox.

“We’re not very good at honouring difference,” says Schafer. “In order for us to feel confident with our choices, we have to believe that the other ways are wrong.”

Naturally, we gravitate toward people who parent in a like-minded way because they validate our own choices. It’s also just simpler.

“On a really pragmatic level, it’s often easier to spend time with people who parent like you do for your own sanity,” says Schafer. “If you have a friend over for lunch and you’re trying to get your kid to sit at the table, but her kids are allowed to get up and down, it ’s just tiring and chaotic.”

This isn’t to say that we can’t be pals with people who parent differently, but it does take a certain amount of “let’s agree to disagree” to achieve that, plus enough confidence in your own style to not feel defensive.

“Her choices aren’t my choices, and I can’t say that we haven’t judged each other over the years,” says Dennis of a health-nut friend who sent her kids to birthday parties with yogurt-covered raisins because she didn’t want them to eat cake. “But after 10 years of friendship, she and I have come to respect that she does things her way and I do things mine.”

But what about when you really think your friend is doing something wrong; how do you offer advice without coming off like a smug know-it-all?

No one likes to be told what to do, says Schafer, but there are ways to express an opinion without being confrontational. Lead with yourself as an example, she suggests, offering this script for a friend who gets overly shouty with her brood. “What I find with my kids, is that when I yell, I feel better for a moment, but then they end up more upset and it doesn’t really change their behaviour, anyway.”

It’s when there isn’t a mutual respect for each other’s choices that the waters get choppy. Indeed, what to do about the pal who keeps peeing on your parade with sideways looks or pesky comments?

Well, next time she makes a “helpful” dig about the hormones in the milk your son is drinking, rather than fly off the handle or ignore it completely, Schafer suggests a little firm diplomacy: “Thanks for your concern; I’ll take that into consideration.” If she persists, resist engaging in a debate and close down the conversation with, “I would really prefer you stopped raising the subject.”

If the friend isn’t getting the message, and these parenting topics are proving too hot to handle, you also might want to try getting out of the playdate rut. With young kids, it’s easy to slip into only seeing your chums at the playground or the pool, but that almost guarantees that talk will get stuck on green poops, picky palettes and yes, whatever issues you disagree on. A brunch date or movie outing sans children is a good way to diffuse tension and focus on what you do like about each other.

This is how one mom got around a delicate situation with a friend who refused to discipline her children. “Every time she came over with her sons, things would get broken, toys would go missing and her boys would pick on my son,” says Gabrielle Fernandez*, a mom of three. “I love her dearly, but I can’t deal with her kids. So now I only see her on girls’ nights out.”

The question of how to tackle a tricky issue, and how far you’ll go to turn things around, comes down to how much you value this person in your life.

“You populate your world with people who generally fill your bucket as oppose to drain it,” says Schafer. The motivation behind a friend’s comments is usually to be helpful, she adds, and rarely is there any malice behind it. “But if there is, you’ll feel it.”

And if the criticism is coming from a place of insecurity—this person is just looking to validate themselves by criticizing you—that’s her problem, not yours. After all, parenthood is tough enough without smug Suzy tossing comments from the other side of the fence.

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