About a year or so ago I began a little unscientific sociological experiment. No control group. Experimental group of two. I started actively reinforcing my husband's authority to my son. My son is very strong willed. He is a natural negotiator, and will dicker you down at the least opportunity. I am pretty stubborn and tenacious myself, but a constant battle of the wills over banal stuff like getting dressed in the morning in a timely fashion is wearying, and I found I was doing most of it. On one level this makes sense - I've spent thousands of hours one-on-one with my son. I know him best. I've got his schedule and his likes and dislikes down. And I'm home with him. However, the old adage "Familiarity breeds contempt," is true in some critical aspects, and also my son knows exactly which buttons to push with me because he's pushed them all before, in varying sequences and with varying degrees of pressure. And while I have the most hands-on parenting practice and have certainly read more parenting books and articles than my husband, often he can get better results because my son is more naturally intimidated by him. He's bigger, he's got a harsher, deeper voice, and he doesn't mollycoddle. One day, after a fun little battle of wills, it occurred to me that I wasn't making best use of the authority I had at hand. So I started:
- Nixing any disrespect, however minor, my son gave to my husband - "You do not talk about your father that way."
- Talking up my husband's contributions to the family to point out who's who on the food chain.
- Clamping down on my urge to smooth things over between them when conflict arises.
- Shutting my mouth when I disagreed with his parenting style, particularly in front of my son. Discussion later, I permit myself. Criticizing at the time - absolutely not.
- Doing practical things like having my husband sit at the head of the table and making it a place of importance.
- Saying things like, "Your father will decide." If I point out, when my son asks for a piece of cake, that he has already had enough sweets for the day, and he says, "You are not the boss of Dad," I reply, "No, I am not the boss of Dad. He will make the decision. But he knows that I have critical information about you that must be factored into his decision."
I find this all quite fascinating, actually. It seems that when I made myself the highest authority, my husband was content to let me take the slings and arrows that went along with it, but when I ceded him that authority, he took on the role pretty naturally, and started being a more active father and a defender of my co-authority. I've always found the whole Head of the Household/Submit to Your Husband stuff really, really annoying. Blame it on a youth with too many Dobson sound bites in the background. But now, having pulled some Dobson moves, I realize there is a certain practicality in reinforcing male authority. It really doesn't matter to me who sits at the head of the table. Half the time I'm in and out of the kitchen getting stuff, so I sit on the side and that works fine. But it does matter to my son, who has shown a vaguely covetous attitude about that head chair, and it matters to my husband who actually said to me the other night, "It's so nice to come home to dinner and to eat it as the head of the table. It's such a good way to end the day."
Beyond the pragmatic, men who are fathers need and deserve respect and the authority of parenthood. It's a hard job, and if they are doing it, those are two tools they will need to help their children and their families succeed. A father is not a part-time babysitter, and he doesn't "help" his wife. Women who try to relegate the men in their lives to support staff are disrespecting both their husbands/boyfriends and their children. And they are making their own jobs tougher. Why would you want to do that?