DEAR CAROLYN: My husband and I don’t see eye-to-eye on discipline. Our kids are generally good kids, but they don’t treat us with the respect I think we ought to have. When I announce that dinner is ready — the kids do not help at all — my husband is not bothered that our daughter does not come to the table until after we are finished eating. When I want to access the parent/student portal to find out our daughter’s grades, my husband defends the daughter’s right to not tell me.
In my view, our daughter spends too much time volunteering — and earning leadership positions — while neglecting her homework, and she got lower grades than she should have.
My husband always seems to take my daughter’s side — even though she has almost failed some classes. She actually did well on tests, but didn’t do the required homework, which drives me crazy! That’s the only reason she has low grades.
I don’t know how to motivate her, but I feel my husband just wants to thwart me. Any advice?
DEAR D.W.: You open with respect, so I’ll start there. On the surface, your kids’ blowing off dinner or chores appears to be disrespectful, yes — but if your husband has different rules for them than you do, and if his rules say dinner and chores are optional, then technically your kids are respecting the rules. Just his, not yours.
So that’s a marital issue more than a discipline one.
Your daughter’s grades may seem like a motivation issue, given her indifference to homework, but the kid you describe is highly motivated – to help and to lead. Useful, no? You just think grades come first. Who gets the last word in an older child’s priorities is a legitimate point to debate.
Problem is, you and your husband seem to be on different sides. So, marital issue again.
The grade-portal issue could be its own column on the line between supervision and hovering. But dwarfing the particulars of that debate is the fact that you and your husband are apparently on different sides of it, too.
And so on, and so on, and so demoralizing for you as you see your family zig whenever you think they should zag.
You will not get in sync, though, by treating all of your “ought-tos” as the high road they’ve all forced you to travel alone. Your kids especially are only doing what you and your husband trained them to do, which is to navigate two sets of rules. They’re doing so to their advantage because that’s just how humans roll (at least the ones who aren’t socialized toward and mature and willing enough to buy into more complex moral thinking, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
The high road in a two-parent home is a consistent and cooperative effort to raise functional kids, reflecting a balance of their parents’ priorities — and therefore probably not exactly reflecting what either one of the parents might prefer in its purest state.
To get more in sync with your family, start with you: Figure out your own priorities. You may know this by its street name, “picking your battles.”
Your letter describes a lot of battles on a lot of fronts and not a lot of strategy.
Do you care most about family dinner? Chores? Homework? Portal access? Where do you think parents get the last word in general? Where does that change as kids get older?
Are your kids acting entitled? Would chores, now, help correct that? How do you define a successful school outcome — high grades, hard work, valuable experience, identifying a passion?
Once you organize your thoughts into some baseline priorities, pick a good, calm time to sit down with your husband to find some you can agree on. Name things you don’t want to budge on, ask for his, ask what he thinks you’re doing so wrong that he needs to intervene on the kids’ behalf. Then listen, listen, listen, without getting defensive.
The substance of your agreement matters less than the fact of it: Two sets of rules in one home puts the kids in control, because they get to choose which rules they follow and which they ignore and as long as they obey one of you, you’re left without any way to impose consequences, which are a parent’s best friend.
And don’t merely insist your husband agree with you on discipline — also be agreeable. Adopt his positions where you can in the interest of unity on those points at least, and of showing respect for his values, and of securing his cooperation where it matters to you most.
If he refuses to grant you even that, if you’re right that thwarting you is his true north — or if the task of sorting your own priorities just feels too overwhelming — then please bring this to a reputable family therapist for professional detangling. Even if you’re on the descent of your child-rearing arc, this is still worth getting right.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.