Research shows that one of the top sources of conflict in marriage is parenting; many couples can resonate with that finding. Even if husband and wife have a similar approach to or philosophy of parenting, differences surface in daily life which inevitably create tensions and put stress on the marriage relationship.

What each of us brings to parenthood primarily comes from what we learned as children. The saying, “children live what they learn” can easily be modified to read, “adults live what they learned in childhood.” For example, if you were raised in a home where anger was expressed firmly but without loud voices, you will more likely not yell when you are angry. The converse is true; if you learned in your childhood home that anger is expressed by yelling, you will likely follow the same pattern in adulthood, unless by the grace of God and your own deep desire, you are deliberate in changing the pattern as an adult.

Children learn from their parents what it means to be a male, female, husband, wife, mother, and father. We teach them primarily from what we model and do, not what we say. They need to see us as husband and wife who work hard to listen, hear and understand each other—both when we agree and disagree.

Common wisdom cites four primary approaches to parenting:

  • Authoritarian {strict discipline, punishment is common, communication mostly from parent to child, high expectations, low flexibility}

  • Authoritative {boundaries/rules and reasons for them are explained, two-way communication appropriate to child’s level of understanding, spoken high expectations/goals, nurturing and empowering environment}

  • Permissive {few rules, children figure out own problems, little direction, warm/nurturing, minimal expectations},

  • Uninvolved {kids do what they want, limited communication, little nurture, few/no expectations}

Before reading further, please take a moment to complete the following sentence: The greatest gift parents can give their children is….

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Now, consider the following two quotations as foundations for parenting:

St. Porphyrios, from Wounded by Love: “Love, harmony, and understanding between the parents are what are required for the children. This provides a great sense of security and certainty.”

Note: harmony means concord, agreement of different sounds into something pleasing.  St. Porphyrios recognizes that each parent brings a different voice to marriage and the task of parenting.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for Life: “The greatest gift parents can give their children is their love for each other. Through that love they create an anxiety-free place for their children to grow....”

For both St. Porphyrios and Henri Nouwen, though worded differently and with different nuances, the key to parenthood is a loving relationship of husband and wife.

In the chapter on marriage and parenting in Wounded by Love, the author gives a few examples of encounters St. Porphyrios had with parents who sought his counsel about  children who were acting out. The wise saint blamed the parents, who, though pious (participated in the sacrament of confession, attended worship regularly, and fasted), argued a lot and did not show love toward one another.

So, what happens when husband and wife disagree?

First, what about the common cliché we all have heard and perhaps agree with, though we may not always adhere to? “Never disagree in front of your children; always present a united front; all arguments/disagreements between husband and wife are to occur behind closed doors.”

It seems to me that this standard is appropriate in some instances. For example, if parents disagree about whether a child needs to be tested for a learning challenge, that conversation is best done in privacy. Or, if husband and wife are struggling in their marriage and in a disagreement, the threat of a divorce by either spouse in front of children is off limits.

Is it possible for husband and wife to discuss a new bedtime for a 10-year-old child when they are not in agreement? Perhaps, as it may be a teaching moment for the child to witness Mom and Dad having a respectful discussion as they model healthy and holy listening and movement toward mutual agreement. Another couple simply cannot have such a conversation, as they may be unable to keep it civil or the disposition of the child is not suitable for such a discussion.

It is important for all couples to have a line they agree they will never cross in the presence of their children AND a way of making sure they do not get caught up in the anger/heat of the moment to endanger crossing that line. Possible lines involve crude or foul language, raised voices, name-calling, etc.). Perhaps consider an agreed-upon signal to give your spouse when you feel your internal temperature rising before you leave the room to take a break so that the disagreement does not escalate.

Further, as husband and wife we must keep in mind both what is age appropriate and “child appropriate.”

So, when we disagree, and a resolution is needed, what options do we have?

  1. The husband is the final word, and the wife submits to his leadership in the home.

  • Pros—clear delineation of authority and the couple may believe they are being faithful to the Scriptures.

  • Consthe wife may become resentful and the husband may lord leadership over the wife, sometimes to the point of emotional abuse

   2. The wife is the final word because she is more involved in the upbringing of the child.

  • Pros—clear delineation of authority, avoids conflict

  • Cons—the husband may become resentful and/or check out of parenting

   3. Depends on the situation—sometimes the husband submits to the wife’s will; at other times, the wife to the husband’s will. This approach reflects mutual submission/give and take; children see cooperation, mutual trust and mutual respect for the gifts husband and wife bring to the marriage. For instance, if the husband is more skilled with finances, the wife may submit financial decisions to him if they cannot come to a mutual decision. Or, if the wife is more attuned to issues of physical health, the husband may submit to her expertise.

   4. Mutual agreement/compromise—can work in many situations where husband and wife disagree (child’s curfew, church attendance as child gets older, length of time on electronic devices  etc.). When a couple takes this approach both husband and wife soften their position to meet somewhere in the middle out of love for Christ and one another; they move toward one another and find a place of compromise (compromise means—mutual promise—without compromising the integrity of the self or the other). Ultimately, compromise reflects mutual respect, requires active and attentive listening and understanding of the position of the other, and teaches children that disagreements can be worked through peacefully.

In parenting our children, let us remember the words of St. Paul: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified….; my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

For husband and wife, the demonstration of the Spirit and the power of God comes first from knowing Jesus Christ and radiating the love of God in Jesus Christ to one another and together to our children both in times of peace and agreement and in times of disagreement.

Presvytera Kerry Pappas is the Seminarian and Clergy Couple Coordinator for the GOA Center for Family Care.