I love my friends, but can’t handle their parenting: how to bridge the parenting styles chasm?

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We're awesome friends… when we leave our kids out of it. Photo by Alex, used under Creative Commons license.
I have some friends who I adore as a couple, but cannot stand as parents. I still see both of them around town at adult functions, but family hangouts almost never happen even though they live nearby and all our kids are the same age. My friends are much more controlling with their kids than I am with mine, and it makes me anxious and exhausted. Sometimes they’ll even try to keep MY kids from doing things I’m fine with, because it makes them nervous. (We’re talking about things like climbing on a log at the park.)

My mother suggested I talk to my friends about it, and my response was “Absolutely not.” I’d hate it if someone told me that I was too anxious about my kid. While I don’t worry about my kids falling off logs, I DO worry about them eating too much junk food, and I’d hate it if someone told me I needed to “just chill out” about it. I just don’t think it’s my place to force my parenting style on my friends.

I can’t be the only person to deal with this issue. How do you bridge the gap with your parent-friends who have different parenting styles/philosophies than you? Do you tell people when you think they’re doing something “wrong”? Do you just limit your relationship to non-kid-time only? — Julie B.

Editor’s note: Hey all! Plenty of people have weighed in with great advice, so we’ve closed comments on this one. Thanks!

Comments on I love my friends, but can’t handle their parenting: how to bridge the parenting styles chasm?

  1. I am excited to hear people’s responses to this question. I would also like to extend it to FAMILY members (both parents and not), as I have noticed my sister-in-law becoming very interested (what I would call obsessed)with my 5 month old son CRAWLING. She keeps trying to get him to crawl and keeps talking about what if he doesn’t crawl, and it is quite annoying, because I am not worried about it, as he will meet milestones in his own time.

    Would love to hear other people’s advice on this, as a conversation with her seems too over the top for the level of behavior.

    • Comparing milestones can be just as bad too because it can make someone feel as though their parenting is inadequate.

      Some babies never crawl. And some late like mine (11 months).

      • I know! my sweet cherub seems to be doing just fine, and I am surprisingly laid back about it all (especially compared to other 1st time moms I know), so its just annoying to have her harp on it!

  2. This is hard – I think a rule of thumb is if the issues aren’t abusive to the kids, don’t say anything. My inlaws say “We screwed up our kids our way, you screw up your kids your way”. I think that’s kind a negative sentiment, but I guess the they mean that everyone does the best they can. You parent your way and your friends will parent their way. The best you can do is lead by example. It’s worse if there’s abuse involved. I knew someone who cussed at their seven year old all the time and called him stupid. Very not OK. At that point, I think it’s OK to say something to your friend and alert them that if they don’t knock it off you will be alerting some authorities. In this case, you will probably lose a friend, but the child’s wellbeing is more important, right?

  3. I don’t have too many friends with kids, but the ones I do have parent very differently than what my husband and I do.
    Luckily for me, my friends don’t try to parent my children or tell them to do (or not do) anything so long as I’m around. We sort of have the general respect for each other as parents that if you’re there paying attention, there’s no need for me to discipline your child.
    I think, so long as you’re comfortable you should just simply state, “Actually, I’m really okay with my kids climbing on a log,” – or doing whatever. You can explain the reasons why you’re okay with it and then just leave it at that.
    You might get a crazy side-eye, but you’ve stated your opinion and now your friend knows where you stand on the issue at hand. I don’t see a reason to try to tell your friend to “chill out” with their own kids. There is no way they won’t take that as a personal attack. I sure as hell wouldn’t want someone telling me that I’m doing something wrong as a parent. However, by explaining your own boundaries, ideals, reservations or whatever, you may open their eyes to a new way of thinking.

  4. Our closest friends parent VERY differently than we do. VERY differently. But we get together on a weekly basis, we enjoy one another’s company and we don’t stress out.


    Because we recognize our differences, we talk about them and we RESPECT the decisions one another makes as parents, even if they aren’t the SAME decisions.

    We tend to our own children and we know what the rules are when it comes to one another’s homes. Because each mom knows what is and is not allowed at each other mom’s home, we respect one another, tend to our children appropriately and enjoy one another.

  5. I’m interested to see if any non-parents weigh in on this.
    We’ve seen less and less of some dear friends of ours since they had kids, because I’m extremely uncomfortable with their authoratarian parenting style. As a non-parent, I know damn well that I have no room to comment, so my solution has been to steer clear of them. Sadly, this means we aren’t seeing our friends, or their kids as often as we’d like.
    This has been distressing to me as it is. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if we had kids as well.

    • Non-parent weighing in. It’s incredibly hard to stay mum when friends make parenting decisions that make me uncomfortable–it’s exhausting to be around. But I have other friends that I really look up to in terms of parenting…and those are the ones I still see with their kids.

  6. This isn’t something I’d ever thought about. I don’t have kids and only a few friends/acquaintances have babies now and they all live over 2 hours away. I’m pretty sure none of my closest friends will be having friends very soon, but I know that they will parent VERY differently than we will.

  7. One of my closest friends and I have virtually opposite perspectives on parenting. If we tried to keep it to “no-kids” time only, we’d never see each other, plus I love my daughter getting to play with hers. We both take the “we’re doing our best” approach, and neither one of us preaches to the other. We do discuss why we do the things we do, and–honestly–that’s helped me to see that we both have our reasons for making the choices we make, we both love our children and have their best interests at heart, and neither one of us has got it all figured out.

  8. I haven’t had to deal with this as a parent yet, but I really admire how my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are doing it. They both have VERY different parenting styles but the cousins still spend time together and clearly benefit from having interaction with other parenting styles. My sister-in-law’s kids know they have to be a little more careful and calm and polite with their uncle, and my brother-in-law’s kids are challenged to be more independent and active with their aunt. Both adults seem to be pretty clear with each other that they disapprove of certain aspects of the other’s parenting, or at least don’t ever intend to parent that way themselves, but they both very much respect the other’s choices, even when it makes them personally uncomfortable. I don’t know how they do it, but I certainly want to emulate that!

  9. I seem to follow more of the attachment parenting model and have a friend who is opposite. I am sure we both think each other is nuts for certain ways we parent but we keep it to ourselves since we both have happy healthy babies. It is hard when she asks for advice as I don’t want her to feel that I am totally against how she does things so I seem to be a bit more cautious with what I say but still am truthful with what I would do.

  10. One of my very closest friends has children the same age as me and we do have different styles of parenting and different hot-button issues. We are pretty in tune with each other and have found ways to approach those subjects. For us, it works best to frame differences by talking about our own parenting style; for example, with your kids, I would have said something like, “I know a lot of people think I’m overbearing about junk food, but we have a history of heart problems and diabetes in my family and I feel like it is my duty to give them a healthy start.” Or, conversely, “I know it might seem like I am pretty carefree with letting them climb around like that, but I feel like it boosts their confidence and that the only way to learn is through trying.” Basically, find a way to bring up what’s going on with you, which invites them to open up about what’s going on behind their parenting ideology… you probably won’t end up on the same page but you can understand each other better.

    I do try to default to other people’s concerns in some cases. I simply tell my kids, ‘Hey, mama over there doesn’t want her kids to play that game, let’s think of a different one.’ I’m a peace maker at heart.

  11. My son’s godparents are very, very different parents from us. So much so that in the event of horrible, tragic death I did not want them taking our son as legal guardians. (They are aware.)

    I find being in their home exhausting at times, because I feel, as the less strict/etc parent, it’s my job to curtail my son when I usually wouldn’t. But they’re our friends: I love them, and our kids love each other.

    So, I allow myself to be mentally critical of the things I don’t agree with, without letting it color my opinion of my friends. I enjoy their company and let the kids run about and figure that at the end of the day, it was just a couple of hours.

    (Though, this helps by virtue of them living 40 minutes away now; we only see them every few weeks.)

    • I distinctly remember visiting my godparents as a 10-year-old and realizing for the first time how strict they were about their kids’ eating. My godfather was my dad’s best friend growing up, and he and his wife had two daughters almost exactly my sister’s and my ages. My sister and I could not believe how regimentalized food was in their house. They had a schedule posted on the fridge stating which days that fresh fruit was permitted (not every day.) I get that fruit is high in sugar and celery sticks are better, but my parents just didn’t roll like that. They were more, “No more Doritos; eat an apple, please.”

      Also, on road trips, my godparents NEVER stopped for bathroom breaks. If you were driving from Harrisburg to Cincinnati, you held it. My mom has a bladder the size of a ketchup packet, so we stopped practically every two hours for the bathroom and various adventures, and it took us five days to drive to Florida.

      Somehow we knew that our godparents would get custody of us if my parents both died, and it became a joke between us, i.e. “Mom, that plane better not crash; I can’t handle the snack’n’pee schedule!”

  12. I don’t have many friends with kids, but within the family there are different parenting styles. For example, my sister-in-law gives my husband a hard time (but not me ironically enough) about letting my 11-year-old-stepdaughter watch movies like The Avengers or TV shows like Regular Show. Yet, we really disagree with her liberal attitude towards junk food and not following through with consequences for bad behavior. Will I criticize her parenting ever? Absolutely not. Will I continue to do what I think is best despite her clucking? Absolutely. All the kids are alive and well, which is all that ultimately matters. The details are what work best for each family. Unless there is something truly dangerous or abusive, it is best to keep your opinions to yourself until asked.

  13. I don’t think that it’s a good idea to critisize someone’s parenting. If they’re doing something that you think might cause problems that they are not aware of then bring it up. Like if someone is mentioning dieting a lot around a young girl I think it would be okay to say for example, ‘I’m glad to hear that your diet is going well, maybe we can talk about it when your child is not around, My mom talked about diets a lot and it caused me to become a little self conscious about my weight, funny what kids pick up.’
    As for personal choices like how much freedom they give their kids, I would not mention it. They probably find that you give your kids too much and would like to mention it just as much as you do. I guess what I’m saying is if it is a parenting decision that they have made then you have no place commenting. If they are doing something unintentionally that you think might be negative for their child then maybe you should bring it up. Like my mom was great but compared me to other kids a lot. She thought of it as ‘if she sees other kids are tidying their rooms/doing their homework she’l want to do it too’, I saw it as her telling me that I was a bad child compared to those she compared me too.

  14. I’m not a parent myself, but I remember growing up and having one of my uncles try to step in and tell me not to do something my mother (his sister) had said was ok. It made me confused, but also resentful towards him, because I felt he was basically being mean to my mom by contradicting her.

    So, though it doesn’t exactly answer the question asked in the post, I do think it’s very important to have this discussion with the other parents, because kids pick up A LOT and if the other parents/adults continue to try to contradict you in their presence, there might be unintended negative feelings towards your friends/family that could result.

    • My friends have a similar story about when our families got together to go camping. Us girl (teenagers, 2 at 16 and 1 at 14) were supposed to have our own campsite next to our parents but separated by a few trees, but then we met these cute boys nearby. My dad freaked out (normally super strict) and their dad in turn decided to get strict (normally super relaxed) and my friends were very annoyed. Not with my parents but with their dad for not standing his ground about his own parenting style.

  15. Unless it’s hurting the kids in a quantifiable/qualifiable way, don’t say anything. We all know how frustrating snark and judgement can be, so cut ’em some slack. Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have.

  16. As the child of the most strict parents on the block/in the family etc., it made me cringe a bit to hear so many judgements about people who have friends whose parenting they disagree with because it’s too “strict.” I’ll probably be more strict than many of my friends and I’m not looking forward to being judged for that, while also being judged by my family for not being strict enough.

    I feel like so long as nothing abusive is going on and they’re not infringing on your own parenting, it’s best not to say anything. In this case, she’s clearly infringing on your parenting by stepping in to “protect” your kid. I think a clear “no, she’s alright climbing that” is a good way to respond. There is nothing really wrong with being clear and concise when you’re setting boundaries. Personally I’d try not to justify it because that leaves it open for discussion. Your parenting approach doesn’t need to be negotiated with your friends, and neither does theirs.

  17. Maybe the least intrusive way to start a conversation about it would be to find a parenting article you thought was interesting, something about taking care of kids, or something along the lines with what you are talking about. Then forward it to your friend and discuss.

  18. I have a stress-friend too. I have talked to her about it, mostly by saying very carefully and in a very carefully chosen moment, “Dude, I notice that when we hang out, you seem really stressed out about what the kids are doing. Are you ok?”
    Then that conversation led in to some stuff, where I had the opportunity to offer my perspective on parenting (Basically “As long as it’s something they’ll heal from, let them try it so they can learn”) and let her decide whether any measure of that could be applied to her kids.
    Sometimes, because we know each other well enough, I’ve even said to her, “Come, sit with me. We’ll sit close enough to help if they need us. Come talk with me.” It does seem to help, at least in that moment. Long term has yet to be seen.

  19. Some kids never warm up to pacifiers (my sisters didn’t), so you should not dip it in anything just to keep it in. Kudos to knowing honey is bad for babies, nor everybody knows.

    Back to topic: I know from experience that it is difficult when friends/family has a very different parenting style than your own.

    Espessialy when they are more the “the kids decide for themselves”, and therefore are all over the place and demand attention non stop on our social interactions.

    Still, the trick here is to make it clear that when they visit you, they, as parents, must respect your “rules”. Like “it is ok to jump on the sofa or run around inside at home, but not when we are at (name)”

  20. I think it is ok to discuss these types of choices, depending on your relationship and whether you and your friends enjoy this kind of discussion. (For example, I would talk about these things with my friends, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable having the same conversation with my husband’s friends.) If people are going to be caring for your children regularly (grandparents, close friends, etc.), then maybe you should have the conversation — in a reasonable way. “We try to keep Johnny to half an our of screentime a day in order to … ” / “We like to let him explore on his own so that he can discover and test his limitations, but we watch carefully to make sure he is not in any serious danger,” etc. But I also think it is important to respect other people’s parenting choices. Parents are their child’s first teachers, and they have the right to make these decisions.

    Assuming that everyone is well-intentioned (and not everyone is — that’s when it would be appropriate to try to step in and maybe, if the situation is bad enough, notitfy someone), then parenting choices reflect beliefs and priorities. Also, there are lots of different reasons individuals make a particular decision: Does a parent *let* a child jump on the bed because A) she’s worried the child will get hurt or B)she can’t afford to replace furniture and wants the kids not to break the springs or C) some other reason? It’s not necessarily that she’s being mean/too strict/cares more about the furniture than her kids having fun. (Just a silly example.) And it doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent who does let their kids jump on the bed DOESN’T care about their safety or replaces furniture regularly.

    How parents themselves were raised and the things that happened to them as children affects the parenting choices they make (I’m fairly easygoing about safety, but I would think twice about letting a group of kids play ball with a metal bat unsupervised because there have been two serious injuries in my family playing baseball that way).

    Other choices come from philosophical outlooks on life. I don’t want battery operated toys in my house, but that doesn’t mean I think parents with battery operated toys are bad parent, and I wouldb’t flip out if another kid brought one over to a playdate.

    I think it’s fine for kids to learn that different people do things differently. It’s a kind of diversity that they need to discover. On the other hand, it is important not to confuse them by with multiple and different expectations. It should be clear, especially to young children what their parents expect, and it should be consistently enforced by their parents and others who regularly care for them. Interventions by other people should be fairly low key (“Oops, honey, let’s walk around the swings, not in front of them!”)which doesn’t confuse the kid, and shouldn’t be offensive to the parent. But by the time they are 4 or 5, kids notice that A’s mom doesn’t serve cookies or that B is allowed to watch a lot more TV. And these can lead to discussions with the kids themselves.

  21. I think these friendships can work so long as there is mutual respect and restraint. I don’t try to tell my friends how to parent, and they don’t try to tell me. I DO ask them questions (I have a lot to learn from different parenting styles– it’s great to see the range of options out there, because my current style may not always be right for us) and answer their questions when they ask. I try to respond with a neutral tone and perhaps a question rather than defensiveness when they do tell me something about my parenting style. I.e., “She shouldn’t sit up yet! Her back isn’t strong enough!” “Well, American doctors tend to say this is ok. So what do you do when your baby wants to sit up?” It’s led to some interesting conversations!

  22. My son is on the autism spectrum. His whole life, and still now (as a teen) I will get suggestions about how to parent him. Not from strangers because I’ve gotten very good at giving the stink-eye if someone is staring and have no problem telling people to f-off. But it’s harder to know how to handle family and friends, because they know him better, and we’ve known them longer, but that still doesn’t make it okay.

    This is what I think- the next time you find yourself in a situation like you mentioned and the other parent says something, you simply say that it’s okay with you if he does that. And you’ll know by their reaction how things are going to be. Since you haven’t said anything to your friend by now, she probably doesn’t even realize you think differently- why would she think you don’t agree if you’ve never given any indication? Either you’ll both acknowledge it, work around it, and respect each other… or…

    I had a friend with a radically different parenting style, very strict. In my opinion, really odd and arbitrary rules. And she was pushy about it. She believed I was too laid-back and would bring it up in a passive-agressive way. Finally there was an incident where I just felt it had gone so far that I was really angry inside, and made the choice to not be around her any more. It wasn’t even about the parenting. It was that I got to see a side to her- how she handled it- that made me feel like I didn’t want that kind of friend.

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