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Parenting as a Team

Before we had children, my wife, Martha, and I thought mothers and fathers had different approaches to parenting. And we were right  -- they often do. But after 34 years of raising eight kids, we've come to realize that these varied viewpoints can actually complement one another and that parents, just like members of a sports team, need to work together to make things run smoothly.

That's why Martha and I have been careful not to see parenting as a contest. When we disagree, we try to look for solutions together rather than figure out who's "right" and who's "wrong"; this helps us combine the best of our methods so our kids benefit. Here, the lessons we've learned about his-and-her parenting over the years.

Act as a team and rely on each other

Act as a team from the start.
The first few months of a baby's life are a critical time for moms and dads to start learning how to care for their child together. Sudden lifestyle changes that come with a newborn can overwhelm a couple, and it's during this high-maintenance stage that the "I'll do it my way" approach will just make parenting more difficult.

For example, with our first child, James, we disagreed on how to respond to his cries. Martha thought that it was important to react immediately, while I tended to be more laid-back and wait a few minutes. But we soon realized that by not responding to James in the same way, we'd only make him fuss more. So instead, we talked it over, and when Martha explained that crying is a baby's only way of communicating that he needs Mom or Dad, I began to appreciate her tactic. I saw that the quicker we attended to James, the less he fussed  -- and the happier all of us were.

And there were times  -- particularly with our eldest daughter, Hayden, who was a very needy baby  -- when Martha was completely drained but would still scoop up our little ones the second they made a peep. I knew that since Martha was a sensitive mother, she would keep giving and giving until she was physically and emotionally spent. That's why I'd often step in and say, "I'll comfort the baby. You need a break," and then take Hayden outside for a walk while Martha relaxed before dinner. Hayden became one of the best parenting instructors we ever had: She helped us discover how necessary it is to share parenting responsibilities  -- from changing diapers to telling bedtime stories  -- both for our sanity and for the good of our children.

Learn to rely on each other.
Through my experience as a parent and working with hundreds of others, I've come to a realization: If Mom and Dad are happy, the kids are more apt to be too. That's why it's essential to keep tabs on each other's well-being  --and to know how to ask for help: Many parents don't look for assistance, thinking they should be able to do it all, until they "lose it."

One day, a few of the kids were driving Martha crazy, constantly calling "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" I knew that she'd battle onward, ever calm, endlessly giving. But I encouraged her to tell them, "You're disturbing my peace; go ask your daddy," and now she does that without hesitation. And, likewise, if Martha knows I have something pressing to do, she'll take care of my share of kid and household responsibilities. Bottom line: We're not only sensitive to each other's needs, we also act on them.

Display discipline and unite

Appreciate each other's approach to discipline.
Mothers and fathers often view discipline differently  -- not better or worse, just differently. If used wisely, such differences can be good for kids. When our children did something mischievous, I tended to react sternly, whereas Martha was more likely to talk about what had happened and try to understand their viewpoints and feelings. One time, when our daughter Lauren was 2, she grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, and it spilled all over the floor. I was very annoyed and on the verge of delivering a loud lecture, while Lauren was about to disintegrate completely. Then Martha stepped in.

She got down to Lauren's eye level and said, "Would you like to help me clean it up?" Lauren nodded, and peace was restored as they worked together. Later I asked Martha how she'd known this was the way to handle the situation. She replied, "I asked myself, 'If I were Lauren, how would I want my mom to react?'" This lesson about trying to see things through my kids' eyes helped me when they were behaving badly for reasons I couldn't immediately understand.

Meanwhile, Martha would often ramble when talking to our children about their misbehavior and would quickly lose their attention. For example, if she was reprimanding them about leaving their bikes in the driveway instead of in the garage, she'd try to explain why doing so was wrong. I, on the other hand, would get the point across by saying, "If your bike isn't where it belongs, you won't be allowed to ride it for two weeks." Martha says I taught her that some situations were best handled with few words. Sometimes, kids simply need to hear "No, you can't do that."

After countless trial-and-error regimens, it's amazing how our discipline styles have blended. Martha has become more assertive and firm, I've become softer, and we've each found an approach that works best for our children.

Present a united front.
"But Mom said I could have a cookie!" "Dad always lets me watch TV." Sound familiar? Children can be crafty about playing one parent against the other, which is why mothers and fathers need to help their kids understand that they, as a team, are the ones in charge.

I remember one occasion when our daughter Erin, 9 at the time, was pleading and pleading for a trendy toy that Martha and I had already privately agreed we weren't going to buy. When we both said no, she got the message that there was no use in pushing the issue further, since she couldn't divide us.

At times, we'd listen to our kids and end the discussion with "We'll talk it over." Martha and I would then weigh each other's opinions out of earshot  -- since listening to parents disagree can confuse a child under the age of 5. We'd come to a compromise and get back to them with the answer. As our children got older, we felt comfortable letting them watch us work out our decision.

It's also critical always to stick up for your partner. Once, when Erin was getting sassy with Martha, I said, "Erin, I expect you to be kind to the woman I love." Ten years later, she still remembers that statement  -- it conveyed where her parents stood with each other.

Take time for two

Take time out as a couple.
It's easy to get so caught up in your kids' lives that you let your relationship as husband and wife slip to the sidelines. For this reason, Martha and I have always tried to have one date night a week  -- which usually includes a relaxing dinner at a local restaurant.

We also started a hobby together. We took swing-dancing lessons years ago, and we still enjoy it. Whether you play tennis, go to a movie, or simply take a walk through a park, the most important thing is to make time for yourselves as a couple, not just as parents. After all, this is why you became teammates in the first place.

Last year Hayden got married, and during our father-daughter dance, images of her life flashed through my mind  -- everything from cradling her to helping her pack for college. I couldn't believe that here I was, dancing with this grown woman, once the baby who taught us a lot about parenting. It turns out we weren't the only ones learning lessons about raising kids all these years. Toward the end of the song, Hayden whispered in my ear, "Daddy, what I remember most about you and Mom is how much you enjoyed each other."

Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N., are authors of The Baby Book.