Friday, May 14, 2010

Piece of Advice #34: Reinforce the authority of your children's father

I honestly don't know why women don't do this as a matter of course because children, by nature, are "divide and conquer" - so two people of solid authority can only make parenting less burdensome.  For whatever reason, however, many do not.

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."
What I began to notice over time was that the more I shored up my husband's authority with my son, the more he reciprocated.  He began to say, "You will not talk to your mother that way."  He began to actively parent my son, to do more activities with him, to interject during conflicts, and to lay down the law.  When he is home now, I've noticed that my son doesn't try to head-butt so much.

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?


  1. It is often much worse than this. Many women, when they have children, seem to define the family--the "us"--as themselves + the kids, with the husband as some sort of outlier.

  2. I think this is a brilliant post. Sometimes just having a recognized chain of command solves a multitude of problems.

  3. I was dating a psych major a while back and was reading one of her textbooks that was very illuminating.

    The whole 'Nuclear Family' thing isn't entirely wired into our brains. Women are following their instincts and protecting their children. When there is nothing there to protect them from, they will find something to protect them from. This is often the Father.

    I'm sure this would be less of a problem if you were thrown in a cave with five other families to live with, and the Father would take on the role of protector of the family unit against their cohabitant family units.

    Not that I recommend living in a small home with five families. Just that, we need to reign in our instincts for life in modern society, and those instincts in this scenario are usually to make the Father/Husband the interloper into the family as the first commenter observed.

  4. Grerp, you are a remarkably sensible woman. I enjoy your posts.

  5. I believe that this one piece of advice would have more positive effect on the nuclear family than almost anything else a mother can for her kids.

  6. Great post/point. I grew up during the height of 3rd wave feminism and it used to drive me CRAZY when my Mother would turn to my Father as "head of household".

    Ultimate irony is...I have chosen an uber traditional family structure with my husband as Head of Household, nearly identical in set up to my Fathers home.

    I often hear my Mothers voice coming out of my mouth when saying things like you quote above. ("You will not speak to your Father like that.")

    I laughed (in a good natured way) when I read this post. I also really enjoy reading your blog and find that I agree with your insights.

  7. Hmmm - In your "about me" section.

    It says that men are more violent than women. I disagree. Studies from the CDC have shown this. Also, the latest war in Libya - Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Fox - three women.

    A pendulum swinging back? No. There is no spoon. There never was.

    That is a rouse to acknowledge the false claim that women were somehow "oppressed" in days past - hogwash - "women and children first" is not oppression - it is exaltation.

    Other than that, I agree with your "about me" section completely.

  8. @ScareCrow: I'm not what one could really call a feminist, but to assert that women weren't oppressed, simply because of "women and children first" (in an emergency situation) is laughable.

    Women couldn't legally leave an abusive husband. A man could rape his wife whenever he wanted, and she had no legal recourse. Women couldn't own property. Women couldn't vote (and political issues affect us as much as they affect men). There were large numbers of professions that women weren't *allowed* to enter.

    How is that not oppression? I'm a stay-at-home mom, by choice, and I love it. But, it's ridiculous to suggest that women were never oppressed.

  9. You get to watch this video as a prize for this post:

  10. "I'm not what one could really call a feminist, but to assert that women weren't oppressed, simply because of "women and children first" (in an emergency situation) is laughable. "

    You are completely clueless. But then, most women are these days.