THE BLOG

When Parenting Styles Sour Friendships

11/17/2011 08:02 am ET
  • Jill Brooke Author, "The Need to Say No: How to be Bullish and Not Bullied"

Many people will admit to tolerating and even loving their friends faults which can include being as promiscuous as Paris Hilton, as messy as Michael Moore or as uninhibited as Sacha Baron Cohen. But once these same friends become parents, the stakes become higher and suddenly what was once amusing becomes annoying.

Take, for example, what happened to Dr. Mark Lowenberg, a New York based dentist. He had a college friend whose parenting style was more of being a friend than a parent. For many years, he tolerated this behavior believing that someone else's parenting style shouldn't be a criteria for friendship. But that changed when his friend starting criticizing his stricter parenting style to his daughter.

"Her desire to be considered cool with my kid crossed the line," he told me, "Now I really never want to see her again."

A friendship was strained for my pal Leslie Lampert, the owner of the New York soup store, Ladle of Love, over different philosophies on sex. "I didn't care if my friend talked about wild nights hanging from chandeliers with me but when she started bragging about her sex life in front of my children, it became a problem for me," she said, "You have to have confidence that you are setting values that are important to you for your family, even if they may be different from your friends' styles." Now Lampert will occasionally see that friend for lunch but they no longer vacation en famille.

Yet my friend Sharon and I know this woman Louisa who is also described by the local mommy police as neglectful. Louisa relegates parenting duties to the nannies, is always traveling and rarely reads or plays with her child. But she is loads of fun at a party and can be counted on for clever and witty conversation.

"We enjoy being involved in every aspect of our sons' life but some people are better with adults than children," Sharon reminded me, "Louisa clearly loves her child but is less hands on. You can't be too judgmental or you won't have many friends."

Easier said than done.

As Dr. Ava Siegler, the director of New York's Child, Adolescent and Family Studies told me, judging other people's parenting has become a full time sport with too many people keeping score of every nuance.

"We have to realize that there are many ways to parent well," said Siegler, "Because we come to the situation as learners, many become like new converts, intolerant of differences in other people. We want to believe that our position is the best one and we're looking for confirmation that our way of parenting is the right way. But of course, there are many ways of being a good parent and a good person."

This problem particularly plagues the working woman who often finds herself judged by the non-working mom.

"You have to remember that the stay at home mother has sacrificed her career, her financial independence and her chance to wear clothes that aren't covered in Shreddies, so I think you do sometimes get the mommier-than-thou attitude towards selfish careerist who escapes all the drudgery and leaves the kids with a babysitter," said Allison Pearson, the author of I Don't Know How She Does It,""I suspect most stay-at-home moms secretly feel they're better parents than working moms, but if I stayed home seven days a week with small children, frankly, I'd think I'd earned the right to be smug and superior about it. But I don't think it's fair to make those judgments because you can be a bad mother if you go out to work and a bad mother if you stay home."

Of course, the word bad can be very subjective. Differences in allotting bedtime schedules, TV programs, Internet usage and considering Hershey's Kisses nutritious are all possible minefields. Recently, the horrible kidnapping of three year old Madeleine McCann in Portugal has created an avalanche of venomous debate on whether parents should ever leave their young children unattended.

Most would agree that leaving a three year old and two year old twins alone is a no-no.

But I recently left my nine year old son and his friend unattended for fifteen minutes to get some needed groceries because they wanted to continue watching Spiderman. Does that make me irresponsible? Defensively I called the child's mother and got the ok before I went. Yet can you imagine how life will be like when the McCanns invite children for playdates. "Little Olivia can only come if there is a babysitter and bodyguard present at all times."

Yet lesser breaches break up friendships and this is the gray area that is causing angst in friendships. My friend Chip Fisher was turned off that his friend allowed his kids to interrupt adult conversations with impunity. Debbie Spiro, a Bedford, New York decorator, felt "unfairly judged" after her five year old son greeted a friend saying, "Hi poopy face," which outraged the child's mother who felt the child was ill-mannered and therefore so was the family. Though Spiro recognized that she has judged other people for her pet peeve -- parents who spoil children and never say no. "We all have our trigger points," she says. "We just have to communicate what they are."

So what do you do if your friend's parenting style is a turn-off?

"The secret is to steer clear of shaming someone," said Dr. Dana Chidekel, the author of Parents In Charge. "If people feel judged or criticized, they won't hear what you're saying and become defensive. Instead, mention to friends what the rules are in your house and how you want them honored when your child is in their house. Ask them what their rules are. Not only are you setting an expectation, but in so doing, you set an example and learning opportunity for both of you."

After many years in practice, Dr. Charlotte Nganele has seen horrible parents produce wonderful kids and wonderful parents produce horrible kids. Genetic predispositions and outside environmental influences are all factors that impact behavior as well as parental rules.

"Maybe that's why so many are judgmental because the randomness scares us," she observes. "We don't have total control of the outcome. I have seen a family with very committed parents where several children went to Ivy League schools and the other is a juvenile delinquent skinning cats. You just don't know. But clearly providing a moral compass and setting expectations and limits is a formula that increases the odds of well adjusted children."

Which is why judging each other will be part of the parenting game, a game with no set rules and so many ways to play. As Allison Pearson noted, "The truth about judging parenting skills is that the parent will always be her own sternest and most unforgiving critic. If no one else is judging me, I'll quite happily beat myself up?"

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