Frenemies? When BFFs Clash Over Parenting Styles

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An interview with Susan Stiffelman

My best friend and I shared clothes, a tiny apartment in our early 20s, and just about every secret imaginable. But when we both had children, we quickly discovered the one thing we didn’t share: parenting philosophies. I cloth diapered, co-slept and wore my baby in a sling. My friend was firmly in the disposables, crib and stroller camp. As our babies grew up, we grew apart, though there was never a definitive friendship-ending argument. It’s now been an entire year since we last spoke and it troubles me to think that a 15-year friendship could fizzle out over diapers. Yes, it’s almost inevitable that good friends will have some parenting views that clash. But how can we cope with points of view that are different from our own–and still remain friends? Here to sort these issues out for us is Susan Stiffelman, licensed family, marriage, and child counselor, AOL’s “Advice Mama” and author of the book, Parenting Without Power Struggles. — Jacqueline, TMC Content Producer

Susan, when my friend and I began to subtly question each other’s parenting choices, I have to admit, I felt attacked–and I’m sure this was a two-way street. When the almost inevitable clash crops up, what can we do to diffuse these situations while still standing firm in our own decisions and values?

Let go, let go, and let go. When people feel that someone is coming at them, every instinct is to stiffen and resist input, even if the other point of view might be illuminating. Start by acknowledging the validity of your friend’s position, and then ask if they’re willing to hear your concerns. “I know that disposable diapers are really convenient, but I read this really great article on how to make cloth diapering easier. It works! Can I send it to you?”

For parents with older children, it’s more likely that a clash of parenting rules and boundaries is in play, but this same technique can be effective. In this case, try something along the lines of, “I can understand why you’d be okay letting the kids swim without their floaties; we’re both sitting on the side of the pool, and if they needed help, we’d be right there. Would you be open to hearing why I’m being so unyielding about it with Katie?”

But what about those uncomfortable moments when your friend is openly critical about what she sees as your flaws as a parent?

Even though it’s common that people project flaws onto others that they themselves are guilty of having, it’s generally not a good idea to enter into a debate or defense of someone who’s criticizing your parenting style. Those discussion tend to deteriorate into attacks or withdrawals when one or the other feels unheard. A brief response is the sanest way to handle this situation. Try something along the lines of, “You know, there might be some truth to that. I’ll think about it…”

And the fact is, there may be at least a kernel of truth in their remarks, but it’s best not to get into defending yourself, or taking it too personally. Let your friend know you have heard that she thinks you’re–too overprotective–too laissez faire—too bossy—too wishy washy–whatever! Then diplomatically see if you can steer the conversation in a new direction. Because she is your friend, you might find that she brings up the topic again, but this time with more willingness to listen and perhaps discover that her perception of you isn’t accurate.

Your strict disciplinarian friend wants to have your child over for a playdate or has agreed to babysit. Whose rules will apply if your child misbehaves?

If you are dropping your child off at her house and you won’t be present during the playdate, this one is pretty clear: it’s her way or the highway while your child is under her care and supervision. The only exception would be if you requested in advance that she handle misbehavior in a different way, and she’s agreed.

This makes me wonder whether playdates in this situation are even a good idea?

It depends on how willing you are to allow your child to have a different experience. Certainly not, if the other parent frightens your child or is in any way inappropriate or uncaring. But if this the case, a more honest dialogue is needed between the two of you.

What about play dates at your house? Can your friend insist that you treat her child in a certain way when she’s not there?

It’s not about insisting; it’s about being open about how you handle basic issues that pop up with kids and making sure she’s comfortable with having you care for her child.

Are there any circumstance when it really is a good idea to lose a friendship over parenting choices–for example, a parent keeping a gun in the house?

That’s a personal choice, and yes, there are many instances in my practice and personal parenting life where I have steered away from a particular friendship because our parenting styles and values were too far apart. A gun might be one of those; violent video games might be another; excessive drinking or lack of supervision (or turning supervision over to a series of questionable parent stand-ins) could also create an unsolvable break.

For the bulk of conflicts that come up, however, remember, this person is your friend! With the exception of certain non-negotiable situations, conflicts can be worked out so that you both feel validated and valued–as parents and friends.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child therapist, educational therapist and a highly regarded parenting coach. Susan writes the weekly parenting advice columnist for AOL’s “ParentDish” and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. She is also the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Sign up for Susan’s “Parenting Without Power Struggles” newsletter at her website,

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Friendship, Learn, Modern Parenting