Should I stay or should I go? (But I love my kids!!)
April 1, 2009 8:54 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my "permissive-parenting" spouse?

My wife and I have been married for 9 years now. We have two beautiful kids, age 5 and 3. Before I got married, I was one of those guys saying "I will NEVER, ever, have kids...." (yeah...right)

Now that we have kids, I am absolutely crazy about them. Want to give them the best I can offer. This is where the trouble begins. Wife and I disagree completely over parenting styles. If you look at the definition of "permissive parenting" on a dictionary, you find my wife's pic in it. (trying to lighten it up really dark for me). I am not a super strict parent, but certainly believe in setting boundaries and limits. And teaching kids that they can't have it all, whenever they want to....Let me give you some examples: The kids are watching the cartoons. Someone will scream "I want juice". Mom rushes into the fridge, brings kid some juice. He sees it and says "I hate orange. I want apple juice". Mom says "but...but there is no apple juice". Kid starts a huge tantrum. Mom dashes out the door to seven-eleven to buy orange juice.

You get the picture? Honestly, I am not exagerating here. This happens ALL day long. Starts in the morning with "I dont like this shirt...I want the spiderman one..." and Mom jumping all hoops to get the kid the spiderman tshirt....and then continues.....Mom just caves in to every little whim they have...because "they're little"- she says. With me, they know I dont tolerate that, but If I scold the kids in front of their Mom for being "tyrants", then Mom will come to their rescue, and defense.

This is driving me CRAZY. Obviously, this has degraded our marriage relationship terribly. We argue constantly. About a year ago, I was so desperate that I said to her: "If you dont go to see a counselor, and understand that permissiveness is not helping the kids, we divorce." She went for abouth 6 or 7 months, said she had understood that kids DO need some healthy boundaries, started to change a bit, then left the counselling.....Now we're back to square one. Every day the kids get more and more disrespectful with her...we have more and more fights about the issue...I am miserable. If I divorce her, I am terrified of leaving the kids with her...How worse could her permissive attitude get? I dont want my kids becoming little dictators!

If I stay, we're getting on each other's as a couple and as a parenting team is gone. What Can I do?
BTW, I know that I am more critical than the average person, so this obviously does not help...I am sure she feels overwhelmed with me pointing out every time the kids stomp over her....HELP!!!
posted by theKik to Human Relations (41 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What I think you're looking for is Positive Discipline. This is a pretty tried and true means of being respectful of a child's...childness, if you will, while also setting solid boundaries.

The book gives clear examples of how and why permissiveness does not work, as well why more traditional authoritarian parenting styles are ultimately ineffective, and provides real-world solutions to the problems you face as a parent.

I would suggest getting and reading the book, and also attending a workshop in your area. Together. It is a sustainable method of parenting, adaptable to the way children change as they get older. It's one of the books I pull out whenever I feel like I no longer know what I'm doing, which, my kids being approximately the same age as yours, is about every two or three months.

A couple of others in my arsenal: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles and How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.

Bottom line: You can't just say "You have to fix this" and send her to counseling. The problem belongs to both of you as a unit, and you both need to find a solution that works for your family.
posted by padraigin at 9:03 PM on April 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

You seem to have an awfully powerful need to be right. That is no prescription for a successful marriage, or even for good parenting. You wife is not really out of the ordinary by your description. I know many mothers who act just like her and their kids seem pretty well adjusted to me. Lots of different parenting styles work, from the very strict to the very permissive. The most important thing is love and support, then giving them some sense of how their actions affect others. This seems easiest through strict boundaries, but really just asking them to reflect on what they have just done, just said, just asked, it really works, but don't get all caught up in seeking some sort of agreement from them on this. You won't get it. However, the message sinks in, especially when repeated.

You have much, much larger problems than child rearing. You need to decide whether your relationship with your wife is good for you or not. How she interacts with the children is not part of that calculus except to the extent that your disagreements over this point cause stress in the relationship. Divorce will not help your kids gain any more structure by the way.

Marriage is a partnership and you don't seem to be seeing your wife's point of view. "If you dont go to see a counselor, and understand that permissiveness is not helping the kids, we divorce." Not nice, not helpful, not good. Ultimatums only lead to bad things in relationships. You should probably go seek counseling on your own to see how you can be a better partner and through that probably even a better parent.
posted by caddis at 9:10 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the book suggestions. Let me explain more here. I have bought several books on parenting. I have read them. I have asked her to read them. She has done so, begrudgingly.

I have proposed starting with a few things. We start, and then she drops off a couple of days later. We have gone to therapy together. I have tried to get her involved many times. She just does not respond....We tried posting carboards with nice rules and funny drawings around the house...they lasted a few weeks...
posted by theKik at 9:10 PM on April 1, 2009

I disagree with caddis. I don't know any kids who were brought up like that who didn't turn out bratty. I don't think you're out of line. Parents are the boss, not kids. Kids shouldn't be ordering around their parents. I don't really have any real suggestions, but I just wanted to chime in that you are not crazy or wrong for feeling this way.
posted by fructose at 9:14 PM on April 1, 2009 [25 favorites]

I'll start with this: you are absolutely right that kids need healthy boundaries, and if your description is anywhere even close to reality, she definitely is making things worse for them, you and herself by her permissiveness. That's a problem that needs to be dealt with.

But your approach could sure use some polishing. You demanded that she go see a counselor (alone, it sounds like), not for some open-ended help, but to gain a specific result that you wanted ("understand that permissiveness is not helping the kids") and topped it off with an ultimatum ("we divorce"). And now you say that life as a team is gone. I'd imagine so. You didn't try to partner with her to find a solution that works; you sent her off to get fixed by a professional under threat of leaving her. That doesn't really bode well for life as a couple or engendering a team spirit.

Here's what you could have done, instead:

Option 1: "You know, it's clear that we have some pretty different ideas about parenting, and if we don't get on the same page somehow, we're going to have some ongoing tension that I don't want us to have. How about we surf around on Amazon, each pick out a parenting book that sounds appealing to us, order them, and then we can read them together and discuss what makes sense. Maybe we can outline some kind of a strategy that we can both agree on."

Option 2: "You know, it's clear that we have some pretty different ideas about parenting, and if we don't get on the same page somehow, we're going to have some ongoing tension that I don't want us to have. Let's see if we can kind a couples' counselor who can give us some feedback about parenting and relationship building, and see if we can't find a good way to function as a team."

There are probably five other options somewhere between those two, but those are the kinds of things that you do if you really value the relationship and want to build harmony. If togetherness is important, you do things together. You don't make ultimatums.

It's amazing that she actually agreed to the counseling under those circumstances. Not only does she have trouble standing up to the kids, it sounds like you'd both be better off if she learned to stand up to you, too. She's going to go crazy trying to please all three of you.

At least you know that you are "more critical than the average person." The general diagnosis here is pretty easy. You are overly critical (of her and probably the kids as well). She is overly compliant (to both you and the kids). This is not an uncommon dynamic, and a decent couples' counselor has seen it a thousand times and can help you figure out how to get some balance. Approach this thing as a team, call a counselor and make plans to start off each working on yourself, not the other person. Really commit to becoming a team, and within six months, you could be amazed at how well things are going.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:14 PM on April 1, 2009 [24 favorites]

On second thought, I do have a suggestion. Find out why she parents this way. It sounds like she is afraid that the kids will be mad at her, and is desperate for their approval. You should both go to counseling, and they may recommend counseling for one or both of you separately as well.
posted by fructose at 9:16 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: [hopefully] I am not trying to justify myself here. She is tired of the kids being like that. We've talked about parenting styles. At one point in time, I offered to try out her way. I really tried. Kids got more rebellious. She even admitted it...I think once she stated that she did not know why she could not be more firm....she wants to change, but recently things have gone real sour.
posted by theKik at 9:18 PM on April 1, 2009

Is she home with the kids all day, while you're out of the house, or otherwise have much more involvement in taking care of them? It's easy for you to say let the kid cry if you'll be away most of the time when it happens. If you do take on less of their care, try changing that. Maybe your wife won't mind changing programs if you do all the initial work and she sees a difference. Your descriptions make it sound like you're telling her how to change and expecting her to follow you instead of making the changes yourself.

Calling them tyrants in front of her is mostly just telling your kids that their mother is wrong in front of her, and unlikely to get you anywhere.
posted by jeather at 9:18 PM on April 1, 2009

First, see if you can convince your wife that you need to be a team on this one - you are willing to change and see if you can meet in the middle.

Buy a copy of 1-2-3 Magic. It offers a clear and straightforward system for handling discipline.
sign up for a parenting class together.

Ask her what drives her crazy and start there with some new family rules. Try as much as possible to ignore spoiling behavior that it is not on the list. Give her lots of positive reinforcement for any effort in the right direction. If she starts to give in and you are there, politely remind the children (and her) of the new rules you and mom agreed upon.

Second, she is probably very good at giving the kids loving attention. Let her guide you in how to have more positive interactions with your children. Make sure each of you get a chance to enjoy them being little - reading stories, doing messy art projects, playing chase. At the same time that you are trying to set some limits, balance it with extra attention and affection that you can all enjoy.
posted by metahawk at 9:18 PM on April 1, 2009

A friend of mine is permissive with her children according to her husband, but much of this appears to come from the fact that, due to work circumstances, he deals with the children about 1/5th the amount of time she does. The children are on the demanding and high-energy side. He comes in and lays down the law for a bit, but then he leaves her to deal with the children 4/5ths of the time. They take their toll on her.

I am not saying this is the pattern in your relationship at all, but perhaps, as I said, your partner is overwhelmed in some sense.
posted by oflinkey at 9:21 PM on April 1, 2009

On non-preview:

Okay, you've gone to therapy together and read books together. You have better instincts than it sounded like in the original post. But you never really formed a partnership or came to lasting change. Why aren't you in therapy right now?

My suspicion is still that what's probably happening is that you hound her and make ultimatums until she grudgingly gives in for a while, not because you are on the same page, but because she wants peace and won't stand up to the ultimatums (as she should). Because she wasn't sold on your parenting approach, she doesn't stick with it. There's no internal motivation to do so.

You have to figure out how to actually partner with her and not just force her into temporary compliance. I'm sticking with my original advice even with the new info. Couples's therapy, together, until this is fixed. Work on parenting later. Work on the marriage now.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:21 PM on April 1, 2009

Perhaps there's something else going on a little deeper under the surface. What was her own childhood like, her relationship with her own parents? Does she suffer from any kind of depression, abandonment issues, that kind of thing? Does she have adult ADD? Was she successful in a certain career path prior to having children that might point to some of the issues she has with being a person in authority? These are excuses, certainly, but sometimes you need to get to the root of excuses before a person is able to step up and take care of business. You may well have some excuses of your own to pick apart.
posted by padraigin at 9:23 PM on April 1, 2009

What were your wife's parents like? Do you know? She may be in inhibited in an unhealthy way in her interactions with your kids by bad memories of how her parents treated her.

(I also disagree with Caddis. I've had a lot of conflict with my husband about my lack of discipline with the kids. But a) my permissiveness doesn't approach the level you describe and b) I recognize that boundaries and discipline are necessary, and that I may have a lot to unlearn/relearn in this area.)
posted by torticat at 9:25 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

One more thing: If you do start to make changes, you (and especially her) should be prepared for the children's behavior to get worse - they are going to test to see if you are really going to keep to the new rules or not. If you say No, No, No, Yes then the kids will learn that if they get three no's, they should keep whining because it might be yes next time. Give it two weeks of consistent standards and you should see a real jump in their cooperation.
posted by metahawk at 9:25 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Question: Is the mom stay-at-home? Are the kids in outside-the-house care at all? Could it be that mom never has enough time to stand away from the situation and survey it?
posted by u2604ab at 9:28 PM on April 1, 2009

...and, on non-preview--listen to Pater Aletheias. And padraigan.

It does sound like there may be some underlying relationship matters that take higher priority than those having to do with child-discipline.

Also, I've been the somewhat-unwilling primary caregiver (though with a very involved and caring father) of four kids for several years, so that's my perspective. It's tough when you're on your own with the little beasts (God love 'em) for hours on end.
posted by torticat at 9:38 PM on April 1, 2009

Your children are young, but not too young to start working with them on this. Sometimes, when Mom isn't around, explain to them in words that they can understand why they should not treat their mother like a welcome mat. Focus on Mom's positive qualities and actions rather on the behaviors of the children. Explain that Mom works very hard for the family and it is important to help her out so that the family is able to get through the boring parts of the day, like getting dressed, and maximize the fun parts of the day. Then set some expectations, boundaries, and consequences. For instance, tell them that if they scream at Mom for juice while they're watching TV, they will get only water to drink in the kitchen--or nap time.

Now, there's some work for you. First, when you hear the "I'm thirsty scream" go into the room and tell your child that there is juice available in the kitchen. It will be more work for you, but go into the kitchen with your child have your child "help" you get the cup, get the juice, pour a cup of juice, etc. They need to participate in the work that it takes for things to run efficiently.

Also, work with your wife to regularly schedule some times when she is out of the house or otherwise unavailable to the children. It should be clear to the children that the amount of fun vs. discussion of behavior that takes during this time should be factor of how much cooperation was exhibited during the week. I'm not suggesting bribing your children at all. Rather, make it clear that the consequence of being uncooperative is a 3 discourse from Dad on the value of cooperation followed by 20 minutes of games with Dad, and vice-versa when there is cooperation.

Be very careful not to let yourself become the hard-ass. Make sure that you have fun times with your children and that they can perceive, at some level, the link between their behavior and how much fun the family has. Praise their cooperative behavior and the progress that they make. Your children will pick up on your positive attitude. Always remember that they are young children and they are demanding because they still have not learned how to take care of themselves. With your and your wife's help, they will grow out of it.

Good luck.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 9:52 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks to each one of you for helping frame my situation.

I'm glad to know that I am not crazy in thinking that healthy boundaries are needed.
(seems to me like now-a-days discipline is not seen as a good thing)

feeling a bit hopeless, but will try going to counselling one more time...together.

As painfull as it is to accept it, I dont have a clue as to how to partner with her. Need to learn that. Also understand that I want to force her into temporary compliance.

Even more painful is the fact that we need to work on the marriage now, and discipline later.

BTW, yes, she is a stay-at-home mom. I'm sure she is overwhelmed. I work from home, so I thought I was pretty involved....I help with breakfast and getting them ready for school, dressing them with them at noon, play a bit, then at night help with dinner, bathe them, put them to sleep. Kids are on the high energy/demanding category, for sure...
posted by theKik at 10:01 PM on April 1, 2009

I am going to echo the recommendation of 1-2-3 Magic.

When the kids ask for something that is not an available option, and she's running out to get it... this is a great place to start setting some boundaries down. "What do you want to drink--milk or apple juice? Oh, you want orange juice? We don't have any, but we have apple juice and milk, so which do you want?" (If a tantrum or something follows, it's an appropriate-length time out and then an invitation back to the dinner table to drink some milk or apple juice.) Give very clear choices between two or three real options. This provides space for your kids to develop autonomy by making those decisions, but limits it enough so that they are not overwhelmed by choices or demanding things in excess of what is available.

I think going to counseling together is an excellent idea. Getting some coaching on how to parent together is going to help you both in finding a good compromise so that you're supporting each other rather than becoming oppositional.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:00 PM on April 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

This may sound really dumb but I think you two should watch a few episodes of Supernanny together. Seriously.

She covers these very problems over and over. Watch a few episodes from the first season, talk about them together, create a daily schedule on paper, and stick to her methods like glue for three weeks. As someone who has done a lot of childcare, I think her methods are solid.

If you have a moment where you are really uncomfortable with how things are going, write it down instead of arguing about it right then and bring it up at a parent conference in the evening. You two have to stand united.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:12 PM on April 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

She is doing the same thing with you that she does with the kids. You demand something, and she caves to appease you. Your dynamic is not healthy, and you need more counseling to help both of you break this cycle. You also need to commit to not leaving counseling the moment things seem to be getting better, but rather to using therapy to sustain the changes in your relationship.
posted by decathecting at 11:15 PM on April 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure it would help, but you could show her this very recent article about narcissistic personality disorder that includes this very relevant paragraph:

The leading theory about the development of NPD is that people get it the old-fashioned, Freudian way: Your parents give it to you. It starts very early when the attachment between infant and caregiver goes awry. In the first years attentive parents instinctively respond to the infant's moods. But cold, neglectful, or abusive parents don't provide the necessary comfort. Paradoxically, over-involved parents can be just as damaging because they convey anxiety and distress in the face of their child's unhappiness. As a result of neglect or smothering, these children don't learn the essential skills of being able to soothe themselves and regulate their feelings. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic say the drift toward hovering, boosterish parents who want to gratify their child's every impulse will churn out more narcissistically disordered people.
posted by Dasein at 11:37 PM on April 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

theKik, think about this in terms of modeling the parenting approach that you would like to see your wife employ. Don't tell her to do it, show her it works and she will come around on her own.

Also, as a general piece of advice, you should try to limit your children's sugar intake.

And don't hesitate to talk to your prescriber about some benzodiazepines for when the stress of the situation exceeds your ability to cope. They're not just mother's little helper anymore.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:44 PM on April 1, 2009

Another voice strongly disagreeing with "You [sic] wife is not really out of the ordinary by your description."

Shades of gray, but oh yes she is. I've been around a ton of kids and seen lots where the approach is in your realm, some where it's in your wife's, one was both, evolved. One sis had three kids, didn't run baby boot camp, cut 'em some slack, but there were fundamental boundaries and consequences. The kids were not relentlessly angelic, but their parents and all who interacted with 'em thought the three were well within the realm of acceptable behavior/attitudes.

Other sis had one kid and she was exactly like your wife. Her hubby bought into it, too, and the kid was--through no fault of his own--grim. At the age of 3-4 he would cry (literally) over the tiniest thing, get upset and pouty if he got his hands a bit dirty. Stranger things have happened, but beyond the day-to-day, there were real concerns that he would grow up to be a spoiled-brat adult with lousy social skills. He was and is wicked smart so people wondered if he might have a $250,000 salary and a 25-cent personality.

In the day-to-day, nobody in the family wanted to be around him/them much because he was a big pain and they were constantly catering to him like the world would end in 20 seconds if they didn't. My brother-in-law started to wise up. At one point he commented, taken aback, "I'm arguing with a 4-year-old." Around that time, all the four kids were playing in a playground, my b-i-l saw how the other three were relative to his son. He turned to me and said, "My son's a wimp."

Things changed. A lot.

My sis is strong-willed and I can believe that the sea change didn't come easily in terms of my sister agreeing that what was fundamentally her approach was fundamentally wrong--and acting on that. But she did, put the strong-willed side into "Okay, new plan and I will damn well give it my best."

It didn't take long before there were big, clear changes in the kid's behavior.

Oh by the way, that was about 15 years ago.

The kid's a terrific, level-headed, grateful teen-ager. He's making marvelous grades at Stanford and pitching well on their baseball team.
posted by ambient2 at 4:21 AM on April 2, 2009

I want to force her into temporary compliance.

Force her? This is no way to have a marriage. Forget about the discipline and focus on the relationship.
posted by caddis at 4:23 AM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hang in there. This is not an easy situation and I applaud you for seeking out a solution.

Of *course* it's easier to cave and say yes, in the same way it's more fun to satisfy your craving for chocolate-covered bacon instead of eating carrots. You get relief now at a price later.


She. Must. Say. No.

I have two very strong-willed children, one of whom is 5. He loves the original "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which we watched together. I kept pointing out the bratty behavior and saying things like "I'm glad you're not greedy!" "I'm glad you don't say 'I want' all the time!" "Look what happens to children whose parents say yes all the time!" We now have common ground -- a shorthand -- for identifying his bratty behavior. "Oh, you're being like Veruca Salt today. Are YOU a bad egg?" He wants to be good and knows what I mean and usually stops the behavior.

Having scripts like these helps.

"Mama, I want a Lego set!"

"You want many things."


"Mama, I want a glass of milk!"

"Can you think of a polite way to say that?"


"Mama, you're mean!"

"I know you think that. What would be really mean is letting you turn into a brat. Saying 'no' is my job."

Say these things together when the kids whine. Sounds goofy, but then the kids are literally hearing the same message from both of you. After a while, these responses get more automatic and the kids will get used to hearing them.

Yes, your kids are going to think mom is mean. It might be helpful if she re-cast her job as saying no much more often, and letting the kids negotiate her into an earned yes (by being polite, by doing a chore, etc.). She is still an ogre...but can be overcome with the correct (helpful, polite) action.

"No" is a tool to wield and, like all tools, takes time to learn to use deftly. The ability to say no is also about self-worth. If your wife is overwhelmed or depressed, saying "no" might be more than she can bear--but maybe saying a qualified no will be enough. Have you asked her, flat out, how she feels when she says "yes" versus "no" when the kids are demanding? The ability to say no is for her self-preservation as well.

Good luck. This is a tough one.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:39 AM on April 2, 2009 [10 favorites]

Nthing all the comments above suggesting that what you need to do is work on your relationship first, before attempting to fix the parenting.

As the "compliant" half of a (much much milder) compliant/critical relationship dynamic, I can attest that the same aspects of your wife's character that make her cave to the kids are also the ones that make her cave to you (in the short term, at least). Any approach you take that's based in proving to her that you're right, she's wrong, and that everything would be fine if she just came consistently around to your way of thinking, will only reinforce her feeling that she's basically not capable/worthy of making decisions or enforcing boundaries with anyone-- and hence will augment her problems disciplining the kids.

The ultimate outcome of this should be to get her to feel like a warrior/CEO mama, confident and strong in herself and her own decisions-- not to get her to do it your way OR the kids' way. I don't know what combo of therapy/self-discovery/altered circumstances will produce that kind of progress, but I'm pretty sure that at least some part of the process will require you to make some changes on your own end, particularly in cutting back the criticism (everywhere, not just re: discipline) and introducing lots of praise and positive reinforcement of your wife. It's amazing how empty and worthless a barrage of constant daily criticism can make a person feel-- and those feelings of emptiness are exactly what then might prompt someone to turn around and seek, say, the approval of a 3-year-old for getting him the OJ he wants.
posted by Bardolph at 4:52 AM on April 2, 2009

As painfull as it is to accept it, I dont have a clue as to how to partner with her. Need to learn that. Also understand that I want to force her into temporary compliance.

Even more painful is the fact that we need to work on the marriage now, and discipline later.

Say this to her. Maybe just like this. There is a world of difference between "You need to shape up" and "I don't know how to partner with you, and I want to, for us first and then for our kids." It's a humbling thing to realize, let alone to express that humility openly to a partner, but it makes a huge difference. It changes the situation from "your problem" to "our problem."

I also suggest that you make a list, written down and hidden somewhere where you can refer to it, of the ways in which your wife is a good partner and a good mom. It can be so easy to forget all the good stuff in the face of that one thing that drives you around the bend and would be so easy to fix if s/he would just commit..., and that's when the list comes in handy.
posted by catlet at 5:02 AM on April 2, 2009

You sound humourless and uncompromising and generally unpleasant to work with. "Force her into compliance"? And you're not a parenting expert and your wife is not a parenting imbecile, much as you might feel otherwise.

You mention orange juice and Spiderman t-shirts, which makes me think your closets are not overflowing with $200 toys bought for a tantrum and then never played with. Is it possible she really is simply giving in on little things and only little things? And this really yanks your chain for some reason, and the issue is blown way out of proportion?
posted by kmennie at 5:49 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing those that have suggested counseling, and that addressing her discipline practices before you handle marital problems is putting the cart before the horse. Your wife is not your employee; you don't get to force her to do a damn thing.

I think you're right to worry about excessive permissiveness, but your anxiety is preventing you from either fully understanding the problem or seeing a viable way to deal with it. You want her behavior to change for the sake of your kids, but you want her to do it your way, right away, for your comfort. What's good for the kids probably overlaps what's comfortable for you, but they are not one and the same. The fact that this issue pushes your buttons and makes you so uncomfortable suggests that your judgment about how to deal with it is severely impaired. You need outside help, and you need to be careful that you don't seek out the sort of outside helper that will only tell you what you want to hear.
posted by jon1270 at 6:01 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you are doing a wonderful thing, sticking up for your kids this way! Everything you've written seems so spot-on--get rid of any doubt that you are being controlling, argumentative, etc etc etc. You are trying to raise healthy people--and you have to fight against your wife's misguided tendencies to do that, it seems.

You are not wrong to think that you have to defend your children's wellbeing against your wife's parenting style. You must. Everytime you try something new, give her a book to read, go to counseling, etc, you are being a loving advocate for your children. And yes, I do think marriages can fail in an effort to save the children.

I'm not advocating leaving your wife. Not now. I think you've tried just about everything one could try to bring their partner on board, but there's always hope. However, you may need to frame it for her one more time.

I would probably say something like this:
"I can not be part of this for one more day. If we can not parent these children together in a way that is at peace for both of us and healthy for the children, we will have to consider seperating. We must improve, it must start now, and I don't want to give up until we've exhausted every option."

Remember: children are wet clay. They must be molded very carefully before they dry!
posted by agentwills at 6:41 AM on April 2, 2009

I agree with most everyone here, but not caddis (sorry). Kids should be allowed to be kids, but they should also be taught to have manners and respect. Even at the ages of 5 and 3, they don't respect Mom, because they can walk all over her. They are learning that they can get their way if they just outlast her. This is not a good lesson for them to be learning. I don't know about the rest of you, but I have concrete memories starting from when I was 3- and I'm confident I have even more subconscious memories of lessons learned. I know some parents have this concept in their heads that their kids should be precious little unrestrained snowflakes, and that they can learn good social behavior later. That doesn't work so well.

It's been said before, and bears repeating- the biggest, most important jobs in kids' and parents' lives is boundary setting. Kids are programmed to learn about the world- run, jump, play, experiment, push, pull- the concrete world has real boundaries, so should the social world.

(When I say "manners and respect", I don't mean the "yes ma'am, no ma'am" line up for inspection at bedtime kind of thing. Just simple, basic human respect. They are individuals, but so are mom and dad, and the kids need to learn that and act accordingly. Being "the boss" and demanding respectful behavior doesn't have to mean mom has to be a drill sergeant or no longer have any fun- it simply means showing the kids that there are boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. I'm sure mom would be mortified if one of her kids did the "gimme some orange juice" routine to a stranger. Well, letting them do one thing at home and another thing to strangers sets up all kinds of bad patterns. It's uncomfortable to think of kids this way, but the "it's ok to treat some people poorly at home but not in public" has some really unpleasant results in the future.)

It's natural that mom and dad are going to have different relationships with their kids- what's troubling is the vastness of the differences. None of us are in the house, but it doesn't sound to me like dad has unreasonable expectations. And it sounds like mom has got some issues- it really sounds like she is stressed out, and unfortunately, seems to feel like that by catering to the kids whims, that will keep the stress level down. Sadly, that's not going to end well.

I'd also suggest that deciding to focus on one thing or the other (marriage versus discipline) is going to be helpful. To dad, I'd say that even if it seems like leaving is the only option, that will not be a positive result for anyone. Everyone will end up worse- you'll still feel like mom is not doing a good job, mom will have even more stress, kids will lose stability. Mom and dad need to work on both things together (meaning, simultaneously and as a team). I'm sure it will be harder for mom, it usually is- biology demands that we cater to the needs of an infant. And it's hard to accept that the needs of older children aren't always pleasurable for either side.

As for the Nanny Nightmare advice of having a schedule and sticking to it, I'd say that's true, with one caveat- parent's shouldn't cede their "authority" to teach respectful behavior to a piece of paper with rules written on it. Kids want stability, but only if that stability comes from the parents, not from some magic set of rules. I'd even go so far as to say that the stability comes from the parents following the rules rather than enforcing them. As a kid, I remember that my most unpleasant moments were when mom and dad deviated from my expectations- when the framework of life was interrupted with no warning or explanation. One in particular was "you know how sunday mornings are fun times where you'd watch cartoons and lounge around? not any more- we're dragging our asses to church! 'Cause I said so!" Or "sure you can play with your friends Saturday at noon!" But then being awakened at the crack of dawn with "you can't play with your friends unless you clean your room!" Well, if you told me that in the first place, I would have prepared for it. Now I just think you're being a dick.

(And anecdotally, all I can say is that I've seen that it is pretty much universal that the more someone is catered to and allowed to get their way, the less healthy the relationship becomes. Every act of giving in is a tiny piece of the individual that dies a little. And every time someone is given in to, they make a short term gain for a long term loss. Nobody, even kids, enjoys being in a relationship with a social power imbalance. It might be temporarily comfortable to get your orange juice on demand, but it's deeply uncomfortable to learn that you can't trust mom or dad to stop you when you are doing something that's going to end in tears. And not for nothing, of all the kids I know and have seen grow up, the most well rounded and well behaved and happiest are the ones whose parents set good boundaries. If I had to made a binary comparison, I'd say that children of overly permissive parents are just as unhappy as children of overly regimented parents- but at least the regimented kids know how to get stuff done.
posted by gjc at 7:01 AM on April 2, 2009

Wonderful advice from padraigin and Pater Aletheias. Their advice is worth giving a very close read to.

What I would add is this: I believe parenting should be fun. Naturally, it's not always, you're accountable to so much, answerable to so many (just read this thread--I bet you're feeling even MORE pressure to get this right, huh? Lest your kids become boundary-crushing narcissists). Compound this pressure with the intensity of the love and worry we feel as well as the routines and cycle of everyday life--honestly I'm not sure why we're so hard on parents given all of this.

It's no wonder that many of us respond to this pressure and these strong feelings with interpersonal coping mechanisms of various kinds. Its sounds like it works, in the moment, for your partner to make choices that privilege her child's immediate satisfaction vs. some, far-off, incomprehensible idea that a juice request in the moment might lead to a dissatisfied bully in the future. Well, good grief, we've all been there--with kids, with bosses, with our partners and friends. That crazy moment when someone you love is yelling at you is rarely the moment where every single person does the exact right thing for all time.

Likewise, so many of us, entwined in the complex organism that is a family or group of friends have had moments of being an outside observer and the feelings of righteousness that can come with it. When you're not the one locked in the battle with a little one that you love so crazily and who frustrates you so deeply, it's a lot easier to decide someone is doing it wrong. AskMe is a giant farm planted with questions and answers about "how do I get this person to see that they are wrong, that I see that their behavior is unhelpful?" Your wife, you, how you are all feeling, are not unique, and probably neither one of you is behaving in such a way that is, say, pathologically, an issue.

So, the fun. Sometimes fun is about making light of emotional realities that we can't control. We can't control the huge scope of love we feel for our kids, or how accountable we are to them and their future. We can't just suddenly arrest how we cope with the situations that play out as a result. All you can do is say, "well, this isn't fun. It's not working. I feel all of the immense pressure of love and responsibility but none of the giddiness." And then, in the face of it, choose fun.

When your partner is locked in battle, be the soldier who gets her back and teaches your kids that they have more important things to do, as children, then pester themselves and everyone else over the little stuff. "No orange juice you say? Well, then, get in the car, get on a plane, off we go to Florida! Better yet, Mom needs the car for errands, we much walk to Florida, find an orange grove, and pick oranges for your juice!" Silliness, laughter, diffuse the situation for everyone, make it possible to step back and make a decision that benefits everyone. "No? Not all the way to Florida, well, lets take a walk partway there so that we can give Mom here a break from--she needs it when someone she loves isn't treating her so well."

The thing about fun though, about being silly, is that it's hard give into it. Anyone whose been in the middle of a terrible fight knows, even when you realize the fight is silly, how almost impossible it is to let go of all of that addictive yelling and hating and make light and make up. Which is why, I feel, you might be interested in getting help, as a whole family, to have fun. There are lots of family therapists that do talk therapy and play therapy to heal and get some tools in place. You don't just have to be a partner with your wife, but children are active participants in their own upbringing, too. It rarely works to do things to kids, but I think it does work when everyone is doing everything together. My two year old, if I tell him, "pick up your playroom" will not do it, even if I yelled us both into tears. But if I make a game of us doing it together, the playroom gets clean and everyone stays happy, and he learns a little bit about getting people to work with you.

My partner and I remind each other, all the time, "would you say that to your friend or coworker?" It keeps us out of the bickering loop to work to treat each other as well as we treat our friends and as civilly and politely as we would treat our boss. An even bigger deal is that we extend this to our son. What if you asked your wife if she would like to make things fun again, to have fun parenting with you, and then you included your kids into that conversation (as much as they understand)? That it's not about you wanting her to be better, but that it's about all of you, together, having a good time? I would give your wife a lot of credit for sticking out therapy as long as she did with do partner beside her on the couch and nothing but an ultimatum in her heart. I think she wants to do this with you, with all of you, but it has to be on everyone's terms.

I feel that I am writing my way into a lecture, so I should close, but my thoughts are with your family today, and my hope for you is a really good day that makes things feel possible and hopeful.
posted by rumposinc at 7:57 AM on April 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

I don't have time to locate the link, but Peri Class wrote a great piece for the New York Times recently about rude kids. She is a pediatrician, and the article basically describes out how awful it is when parents let their kids be rude all the time. She comes at it from a very good perspective, one that your wife might be open to.
posted by alms at 8:10 AM on April 2, 2009

I had the *exact* same arguments with my girlfriend over the *exact* same scenarios with the *exact* age range of the kids. She refused to listen to me when I told her what she was setting them up for.

Fast forward a mere 3 years later. They are openly disrespectful, more demanding than ever and are very much the children that people stare at incredulously when she takes them to the store. They ask for toys, throw a fit, she buys toys, they trash toys. She is constantly overwhelmed and defeated by their demands and while she is now sympathetic to what I've been telling her all along, she no longer has the energy to do anything besides just give in.

Don't divorce over this; it's not going to fix the problem and you're still going to end up with split custody of (or worse yet, having to pay child support for) rotten kids. Figure out a way to get on the same page with this, otherwise it will get to the point where you resent your own offspring and your wife will resign herself to being a full-time job of being a servant for the child overlords. She will in turn become exhausted and resent you for not "helping with the kids."
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 9:09 AM on April 2, 2009

Are you still an expatriate family? If so, I could see this potentially creating dynamics not yet taken into consideration in the answers.

And here's the Perri Klass NYT article.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:27 AM on April 2, 2009

your wife is clearly needy of validation, attention, love and respect and this is her way of getting it. For whatever reasons, whether pathological or not, it works for her.

You need to address the basic lack of all those things she is getting from both you and your children before she can behave differently. I wouldn't be so concerned with you divorcing her and leaving your kids to her toxic embrace, I would be concerned that she finally puts her foot down and refuses to put up with the general lack of respect from all of you and leaves you with the kids while she swans off with somone who makes her feel good.

posted by Wilder at 11:28 AM on April 2, 2009

As a parent of two little ones, I would also agree that children need healthy boundaries. Children thrive with predictabilty and consistency. They will also push boundaries and it is your job to enforce them.

Here are some things that have made my life easier.

First, never lose your temper (I know, it's impossible but try your damndest not to). If you can remain calm while your kids are throwing a tantrum, it makes life a lot easier for you. And if they continue to yell and scream, just ignore them, if possible. If not, be prepared to leave wherever you are if the tantrum persists (Dinner, supermarket, toy store, etc.) Be consistent and resolved. Do NOT get in an argument with a five year old. Tell them what they need to do and stop talking.

Second, when your kids demand something, ask them to ask nicely. "Please" is now a permanent part of my son's vocabulary. If he's rude with you, he'll be rude with others.

If he wants something he can't have, give him two other choices. ("I want apple juice." "You can have orange juice or milk"). Say it once or twice and if they tantrum, ignore them or leave, if necessary.

Also, please reward them for good behavior. In fact, I would suggest (and Advanced Behavorial Analysis certainly believes in this) that rewarding good behavior is MORE important than punishing bad behavior. Set up a simple reward system that they can understand. If they can be polite and not tantrum, they get to watch a half hour of TV (or something similar).

Lastly, there should be consequences for repeated bad behavior. If the tantrums and bad behavior continue, take away a favorite toy or take them to their room (A quick rule of thumb, they should never be in their room longer than their age - 5 year old - 5 minutes).

My wife was resistant as well but when she saw the results she became a believer. As an at home working dad (like myself), you have ample opportunity to put the plans in action and enforce them.

Good luck.
posted by cjets at 12:41 PM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Have you considered using the same disciplinarian styles described above on your wife?
posted by MesoFilter at 10:57 PM on April 2, 2009

Some of those strongly-worded condemnations of your point of view are surprising to me, and a tad disturbing even. It seems you do feel this way, but I'll point out to those who are going after you for your post: your intuition about the kind of parenting your kids would benefit from is absolutely on the "spectrum" of acceptable parenting. I would add, too, in your defense: clearly you're deeply concerned about your kids, your wife and your family. So, you may well be at a point where you feel you must "demand" that your wife seek help, jointly with you or otherwise.

As for your wife's parenting style, I've seen two cases of it: my sister and her daughter, and my wife's daughter. And I have to say: the impact on these kids was dramatic, long lasting, and in both cases, were very clearly the result of one parent's parenting style.

My sister's daughter had health issues roughly up to the age of three, and somehow, the parenting style that my sister had employed with her first daughter was thrown out the window with this one. Her sensible, firm but fair parenting was replaced with an astonishing lack of guidance and expectations. Her husband, like you, was sidelined as the whole family, day after day, would be subjected to the child's tantrums, as well as a pervasive nasty, spoiled, aggressive "nature".

Whenever she went out of town, or worked on weekends, the child was virtually unrecognizable. She was completely transformed by her understanding of the expectations of her father. A few years on, when the daughter was about six years old, my sister gradually resumed a more appropriate parenting style, and sure enough, her daughter emerged from the "dark years".

My wife's daughter was raised the same way. A little anecdote: we'd been dating for a few weeks, and we decided to pick up video for the kids. She suggested I go to the video store alone, which I thought was odd, but her daughter insisted on coming. I soon realized why she was reluctant: she could literally not put her daughter in that situation. To paint a picture: seven-year-old girl clutching a video that she had her heart set on (but which my son didn't want to see), weeping, loudly enough to have a store-wide impact.

Now, it was a little different: my future wife didn't intend to acquiesce per se. She simply didn't have the remotest impulse to correct the child. I watched in shock as she responded to her by discussing, asking, cajoling, bargaining...

Well. That pretty much sums up the next few years of my life. My son was acutely affected by what was essentially a constant, destructive battle between a child's parentless id, and the child's world. Of course, the most adversely affected person was the child. She has severe problems at school, and everywhere else. She could literally not be left alone with cousins her age.

At the video store, ultimately, the child came home with the video of her choice in hand, to be watched the next day. You can see the deeply engrained rationalizing that would take place in the mother, and why her longstanding approach was so intractable: what could be more sensible? The child expressed her wishes, and we reached a compromise, right? Add a whole lot of cognitive dissonance, where the easier thing to do is to just let the child win. Plus, add in some maternal instinct to provide for basic physical and emotional needs, and a lot of empathy for the upset child. Then do that for years on end...

Well of course, to the child, "compromise" was the furthest thing from her mind:

- We need to agree on a video.
- Oh! I want that one!
- What? I can't get that one?
- We have to agree???
- Years of learning the effectiveness of this reaction:
- No, no, no!!! Kick, scream.
- Mom deals with me. Mom bargains with me.
- I freak out more, the deal gets better.

So, parenting at that stage involves crawling into the child's brain, so that you anticipate how things "compute" to the child:

- We need to agree on a video.
- Oh! I want that one!
- What? I can't get that one?
- We have to agree???
- Years of learning the effectiveness of this reaction:
- No, no, no!!! Kick, scream.
- Hm. When I did that, my mom sat in the car with me for three minutes. That's no fun.

Eventually, I resolved to address the problem; things came to a head for me, much as they have for you. There was a profound resistance to, and some resentment of my strong view that things needed to change. And, at the risk of being scolded by caddis, eventually, I described very frankly how wrongheaded and damaging this lack of parenting was to the child. And yes, it was at the point where either this would be addressed, or our family would be broken apart. She agreed to let me "take the wheel" for a while. After about three days, the child was substantially different. After about two weeks, she was almost entirely out of the horrible state she'd been in. To this day, she still has outbursts. But their frequency is measured in weeks, not minutes. And of course, she is instantly given a repercussion when it does happen. At school, where she had had problems with hitting other kids, tantruming, etcetera, she started a wonderful program that has her rating how "good" a day she's had... So at this point, she's doing just fine.

When seriously inconsiderate, thoughtless behaviour emerges from a child, that child has the right to be taught what's expected, as you intuit. I agree with metahawk: 1-2-3 Magic would help set a new tone pretty much instantly. Also, and I've been trying to Google it: the program "Real Familes" by Dr. Michael Weiss. Changed my life! Maybe your wife would benefit from seeing the kinds of "before and after" situations depicted, particularly since you seem to suggest your wife is not really responding to written material. I'd say the program is along the lines of Super Nanny, but much better (and without the shaming and mocking that that woman does of parents - don't get me started).

Well good luck, I hope you find a way to unify your parenting in such a way that your kids are learning the thousands of little lessons they need to learn!
posted by huron at 1:03 AM on April 3, 2009

I hate to say this -
but you chose your wife.

Is there any chance that you're annoyed, not just that she's caving into the kids, but that she's caving into the kids instead of caving into you?

If you recognise that you can be a bit critical, has her method of dealing with it been just going along with your ideas, suggestions, criticisms etc most of the time? Trying to placate you?
If so, she's just displaying the same behaviour with your kids.
Unfortunately, they're only kids, and kids shouldn't be responsible for an adults actions (neither should other adults, but at least they can handle the responsibility better :( ).

Your wife needs to develop some self-confidence and self-assertion. A common way to do this, would be more independence in her life.
It might be a good idea for her to say, do some part-time work outside the home - even if that money get's turned right around into having a babysitter or a good pre-school. Those are additionally good, because you can both see how independent parties treat your kids, and which bits you want to emulate. It stops it being a dualistic argument about your way vs her way, and instead, seeing a well, third way to parent your children.

Also basically she needs to have an independent life.
Figure out some way to mind the kids one day or a half day a week?
During which she actually LEAVES the house and does 'her stuff'. She may not have 'her stuff' that doesn't revolve around the kids.
You need her to nurture her own sense of personality, rather than being co-dependent to the people or children around her. Envourage her in any individual hobbies or pursuits, and make sure she has some time set aside for that.
At the moment, she probably associates 'independent' or even just NOT being 'co-dependent' with being 'selfish'.
She needs to explore being 'selfish' and learn the very healthy difference, and when she can do that, she'll understand that NOT giving her children everything they demand, is NOT being selfish!

Both of you do a parenting course, and watch supernanny, but really - figure out where you can give her time-out to be a seperate person.
And swap - make sure you have your own things too. :)

I'm just guessing you're already better at having those boundaries at the moment.
posted by Elysum at 6:40 PM on April 5, 2009

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