BUILDING A FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE Staying Friends When Parenting Styles Differ

I remember the occasion all too well: My toddler son and I were invited to spend the afternoon in the country with an old friend and her daughter, who's just a few weeks older than Benjamin. I imagined the children running through the yard and chasing dragonflies while the moms chatted on the porch. It was not to be. Instead, we spent the day inside, playing with little Carrie's toys. And Pam — all of a sudden, we mixed like oil and water, and our children were the reason. Everything Benjamin touched was off limits. When he tried to throw a ball as we'd taught him, Pam told him sternly, "We don't throw balls. We roll balls." When he climbed on the piano bench, I was about to praise his climbing abilities when she scolded, "We keep our feet on the floor in our house." Meanwhile, Carrie quietly looked through her picture books and rearranged her stuffed animals. After an hour of mismatched play, my anxiety level was sky-high and Benjamin became whiny. But because of my desire to see my friend, I stuck it out. On the way home, I promised never to subject us to that kind of discomfort again. But I didn't want to write off the friendship entirely. There had to be a way I could keep my relationship with Pam while making room for our children's styles; I just didn't know what it was.

No one perfect style Whether it's discipline or diet, or how much and what kind of TV your children may watch, we can butt heads with friends and strangers alike. Breast or bottle, "Ferberizing" or the family bed: whichever decision we make, someone isn't going to agree. "I think it's important to accept the fact that each person has his or her own parenting style," says Ann Douglas, mother of four and author of The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby. "You don't listen to the same music or drink the same brand of beer, so why on earth should you expect your parenting styles to be the same?" How you respond when you're embroiled in a parenting disagreement depends on several variables. The severity of the mismatch, the strength of the friendship, your friend's response to the disagreement, and your own personality will determine the most appropriate solution. When the conflict results from preferences rather than deep philosophical viewpoints — like my afternoon with Pam — it may be best to bite your tongue and adopt an attitude of "to each her own”, especially if there are enough other reasons to keep the friendship going. Jill Brown, a mother of two, says, “If you have a strong enough relationship, you can work around it." Mother of four Lynn Cressotti agrees. Lynn has an outspoken friend who never hesitates to share her opinion of Lynn's parenting decisions. "There are times where I'd love to open my mouth and let her know what it is I feel she is doing wrong," confides Lynn. But it's more important to her to keep the peace than to have it out with her friend. Sometimes, though, ignoring a disagreement doesn't work. The conflict may arise on a frequent basis, or the issue may be too important to you. If this is the case, ideally, you'll be able to share your thoughts and feelings with your friend. Although you may not come to a clear resolution, at least you may be able to respect each other's decisions. This ‘agreeing to disagree’ is a great way to manage differing styles, say experts. "If the friendship is important to you, you would say, 'You and I have very different parenting styles,'" and then try to enlist each other's help, says Jeanne Elium. Elium and her husband, Don, are parents and authors of four books on parenting, including the recent Raising a Teenager. "The job of parenting is so hard. You need each other's support."

Making a point You may have friends who choose not to respect your decisions, though. So what do you do if your neighbor consistently plies your 6-year-old with cookies and cupcakes when you've told her repeatedly that your family is sugar-free? If talking it out doesn't work, says Elium, you may need to minimize your child's exposure to the person, or meet only where you can better control the situation. Mom Jill learned this lesson after a weeklong vacation with a long-distance friend whose kids snack at will and have no set bedtime — no-nos for Jill's two children. "How could I make Sam go to bed when her kids were running around?" she recalls. "Yet my kid was the cranky one the next day." Jeanne Elium reminds parents that we don't just have the power to call the shots for our children. We also bear the responsibility to do what's best for our offspring, even if it means drawing lines — something Elium feels parents all too often forget. "We've really lost the sense that we are leaders for our children, and that we set the standards and the rules," she says. After Jill's nightmare trip, she drew a line. "We can now go visit them for one night, and that's it," she says. Knowing her kids' limits — and her own — makes it possible for the families to enjoy each other without things going sour. In extreme cases, sticking to our guns may mean walking away from a friendship altogether. "I think you have to abandon a friendship if you find yourself embroiled in an ongoing conflict that has escalated into a power issue in which you're both determined to prove the other wrong," says Ann Douglas.

Making a break Even if that lack of support is one-sided, and one person continues to work to maintain the relationship, it may be time to say goodbye. When someone undermines your parenting decisions, it's most likely the sign of deeper problems in the relationship. Parenting is such an important and personal issue, says Elium, that "if they're not respecting your innermost feelings about something, that's a pretty deep disrespect." But it's rare that you'll need to take such drastic measures to protect your choices and your family. We typically surround ourselves with those who value and support our decisions, even when they differ from their own. After all, isn't that what friendship is about?