Maybe you’re the kind of parent who can’t wait to put your kid on a bike, but your spouse can only think about how many lousy drivers are out there. Or maybe your spouse thinks climbing trees builds character and you’re pretty sure it just leads to the ER. Either way, if you’re arguing about it, you’re talking to each other all wrong.
“To talk about whether the activity you want is really risky or whether it’s sensible — that’s putting the cart before the horse,” says Harvard Instructor of Psychology Dr. Craig Malkin, whose blog, Romance Redux, has been dubbed “an essential read” by the pros at Psychology Today. “For people to feel like they can depend on their partners to understand their perspective, that’s what it’s really all about.”
By taking a few deliberate steps, you can move beyond “You’re crazy!” versus “You’re a wimp!” and focus on the task at hand: Raising a kid who isn’t afraid to take risks and try new things, but who also isn’t horribly maimed.
Start With This Question
If you’re the risk-taking parent, Dr. Malkin says, “The first question should always be, ‘What is it that has you worried? I love you and don’t want you to be scared about what happens to our child, so can you tell me what you picture might happen?’ You want your partner to really spell it out.”
If you’re the more risk-averse parent, the first question is: “‘Are you worried somehow that the kid won’t experience the world, or will go through life afraid of everything?'” he says. “You have to figure out the value [your spouse] is trying to impart.”
Either way, your feelings about the activity in question are rooted in something more profound than if the kid rides their bike on city streets or climbs trees in the backyard. You both need to think about it and work through what’s at stake for each of you. It’s easy to argue about the bike or the tree; it’s harder to argue about hopes, dreams, and fears (unless you’re a jerk).
Have This 3-Step Conversation
Mirror: Explain in detail what you’re fears are, discussing both the specific activity and root case. Your spouse repeats back what they heard; then you switch positions and do it again. This may sound awkward, given that it’s basically a more advanced game of “I know you are, but what am I?“, but repeating each other’s fears will help you hear and internalize the other person’s point of view.
Validate: Verbalize an understanding of your spouse’s position. When they hear you say something like, “You’re right, thinking of Junior’s head cracked open is terrifying,” or “You think the bike will increase Junior’s confidence, which we both agree he needs more of,” they’ll feel like you don’t think they’re crazy. That opens them up to understanding your position, too (even if you secretly think they’re crazy).
Empathize: Now, actively work to internalize what your spouse just said to you. Let their worst case scenario play out in your head and tap into the feelings that are actually driving their side of the conversation. Because, if you’re being honest with yourself, envisioning Junior’s head cracked open is terrifying. And envisioning Junior as a teenager who’s scared of of his own shadow is troubling.
“Once you can affirm each other’s emotions and acknowledge what’s at stake for you both, you can look at what you give up if you allow the activity to happen,” says Dr. Malkin. Similarly, you understand what you give up if you agree to not let it happen.
“After you’ve really talked about your concerns and you both feel understood, then you can move into problem solving,” Dr. Malkin says. “You start to ask questions like, ‘What would make you feel more comfortable in this situation? What would need to change for you to feel okay about this?'”
This is how a risk-averse spouse can feel less worried about a risky activity, or where a more risk-taking spouse can accept other activities or variations on the original one that will impart the same benefits: Junior can climb this tree, but not that one; bike rides are on, but only with a parent for the first few months.
“At this point, you can say, ‘I can depend on my partner to care about the fact that I want our children to be both safe and have a sense of freedom in the world, and maybe there are other ways to give them these things than those we’ve discussed.”
See? Neither of you were crazy, all along.
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