by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: My wife often scolds me for not disciplining the children when they misbehave, but when I do try to discipline them, she attacks me for being too harsh. I find that my discipline is not nearly as harsh as hers when she gets angry, but I feel stuck between a rock and a hard spot. I fear our children are receiving a mixed message and worry about them developing very bad habits and behaviors. Why does she keep doing this and what can I do about it?
I am not exactly sure why she does what she does, but there are several possibilities for your wife’s illogical actions. One possibility is that she has fallen into the trap of feeling the need to appease the children. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Bridges, wrote, “The discipline of our children must therefore commence with self-discipline. Nature teaches to love them much. But we want a controlling principle, to teach us to love them wisely. The indulgence of our children has its root in self-indulgence. We do not like putting ourselves in pain” (Italics added). For example, many people have a difficult time weaning a child because they cannot stand the few days and nights of crying necessary to wean the child from the bottle or breast. As a result they spend years struggling with Johnnie and Susie calling the shots. And Johnnie and Susie are not happy calling the shots; they’re really quite frustrated and irritable. The Book of Proverbs gives us much advice on parenting children, including “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18, KJV).
A second reason could be the need for affection from the child. Sometimes one parent takes a child’s part over the other parent because of need for the child’s affection. As a result, an unhealthy relationship develops with both parents. One parent becomes the child’s adversary, while the other becomes the child’s advocate. Again, Bridges made the following observation concerning inappropriate affection or tenderness: “Is not tenderness for the child a cover for the indulgence of weak and foolish affections? There is much more mercy in what seems to be harshness, than in false tenderness.” As long as you are not arbitrary or abusive in discipline, you need not worry about your child not liking you. If you become your child’s advocate against the other parent, there’s a very good chance the child will turn against you when you attempt to administer discipline. Another writer from the past left us with the following bit of wisdom: “Far better that the child should cry under healthful correction, than that parents should afterward cry under the bitter fruit to themselves and children, of neglected discipline.”
A third possibility is that your wife is actually trying to communicate with you through the child. This occurs when there are preexisting issues between parents, and one parent is attempting to get even with the other. It’s called “triangling” and the child becomes the tip of the triangle. A child should never become party to parents’ marital problems. Parents should never use a child as a pawn in a war between them. And a child should not be used as a confidant concerning problems with mother or father. Of all the things mentioned so far, this might be the most damaging. This is mutiny in a marriage relationship. If one parent has something to say to the other parent, it should be said directly.
So what can you do about the situation you present? I can’t stress enough the importance of parents being united in the discipline of their children. To begin with, I would encourage you to find a time when discipline is not an issue to sit down and talk with your wife about the situation as you perceive it. Don’t blame her for what she’s doing to you, but be honest with her about how it makes you feel and the difficult position in which it puts you. Listen carefully to her side of the story. It sounds like she knows the children need discipline. Above, I offered three possible reasons as to why she reacts to your discipline attempts. Listen carefully to see if her explanation fits into any of the three. Talk about the danger of appeasing your children, making them buddies, or drawing them into your marital problems. It’s important not only to agree upon a plan of discipline for the children, but after you agree on a plan it’s important not to change the plan in the midst of the act of discipline. Discuss with her the very difficult situation into which you are placed when she changes yesterday’s agreement in the middle of disciplining the children. Parenting requires unity.
Many parents work from the misconception that friendship now will mean friendship later. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that way. In parenting, you start by being a loving and guiding mom and dad who are guardians of your child’s soul. At the end of the growth comes the harvest of friendship. The process takes time. Don’t rush the harvest.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]