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Dear Emuna: Not on the Same Parenting Page

November 18, 2013 | by Emuna Braverman

Help! I can’t stand the way my wife treats our kids.

Dear Emuna,

We all know that it's hard enough to change ourselves, let alone someone else. But what can I do if my wife is treating our kids, especially our son, in a way which I believe could be causing them emotional and psychological harm?

For example, she has a short fuse with them and not a day goes by without her shouting at them about something. She herself grew up in a home of shouting with a father who was verbally abusive to her mother and I'm sure she wants to break this cycle, yet I see the same patterns re-emerging. I think that when our kids ignore her when she asks a question (at least that is how she sees it, although often our son really did not hear her) or they respond with chutzpah, this acts as a trigger for the release of not only anger towards them but also of repressed anger towards her father. When she is triggered, she will do things such as grab our son forcefully and march him to his room. At other times, she’ll try to exert control over the kids by placing them in timeouts in the bathroom.

Another factor is that she views me as too permissive while I view her as too strict. In fact, I think that she feels she has to compensate for my leniency by going to the other extreme. Yes, I agree kids need boundaries, but it has to be done with commonsense and parents need to pick their battles if they want to win the war. In other words, we need to be on the same page but are struggling to do that. While we're at it, allow me to throw a few more ingredients into this cholent, such as we're struggling with shalom bayis (peace in the home) and financial issues.

Seeking Advice

Dear Seeking Advice,

I really respect the way you have phrased this question. You seem to have some sensitivity to and understanding of your wife's emotional life while simultaneously, some frustration and concern about the way that it is being manifested, especially towards your children. Assuming your description is accurate, it does sound like your wife is carrying her discipline to an extreme that is not healthy for your children. Additionally your frustration with her parenting technique and your shalom bayis issue have, as you say, created a cholent of issues.

I usually advocate professional help when the situation has all the complicated components that your does, but if that is not a possibility, or if getting your wife to agree to it is also an issue, I recommend starting with a calm, caring and loving discussion. Despite your frustration, you must avoid the appearance of criticism or attack.

Start with an expression of love, whether you feel it in the moment or not. “I love you. Your needs are important to me. The emotional health of you and our children is crucial to me. I would do anything to help." Perhaps you could give your wife a little break from parenting, a little vacation, but in the meantime, in the conversation, you could discuss your shared goals for the family. Ask her opinion about how to resolve situations in a way that you meet in the middle, with a strategy that is neither too harsh or too soft. I think if she feels cared for and understood, she is more likely to try to change (although no guarantees).

Of course, as you said, change is difficult, especially coming from the background she did. But I'm sure she doesn't want to be like her father. Don't tell her that she is; that will probably break her heart. Just reinforce the love you have for each other and the children and try to gently nudge her in a more positive direction. Perhaps you could also both take parenting classes together (make it a night out with coffee somewhere afterwards to discuss what you learned). I know it's hard to be patient, especially when you see your children being hurt but, in the end, shalom bayis between you and your wife, a sense that you are working together will be the healthiest thing you can do for your children.

I would like to add one general piece of parenting advice that may also help you. Our teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, once told us that it doesn’t really matter whether parents follow a stricter, more authoritarian approach to parenting or a more permissive, lenient one. The key is consistency. The key is both parents on the same page. This may allow you and your wife to meet in the middle somewhere. You don’t have to take a principled stand on which parenting style is best or right (just move things away from the extreme) which may allow you both to focus on working together and not on proving a point.

-- Emuna

Call the Teacher?

Dear Emuna,

My daughter is in fifth grade. She has had the same best friend since kindergarten. This year, a new girl has joined the class and is trying to nudge my daughter out of the friendship. Now my daughter comes home from school every day crying and it just breaks my heart. What should I do? Call the mother of the new girl? Call the teacher?

Compassionate Mom

Dear Compassionate Mom,

You didn't suggest the one option I would recommend: Nothing. I learned the hard way not to get involved. The middle school years are tough ones for girls. There is a lot of crying and cliques and hurt feelings. But I am glad to report that it seems to be a phase that they grow out of, and that most of the hurt doesn't linger. When parents get involved it inevitably makes the situation worse and draws out the animosity. Otherwise, it is often forgotten in the next day or two. It's not even necessarily true that the new girl is trying to nudge your daughter out. Maybe she just wants to be friends also and your daughter feels threatened, or doesn't want to share her best friend. We need to tread carefully.

I once had a similar situation (although my daughter was the new girl) and I called the mother to discuss it. I was trying to be objective and I suggested that probably all the girls were at fault and that we should try to work together. She responded in outrage that "Only your daughter is at fault. My daughter is doing nothing wrong." I was a little stunned. It took years for my relationship with the mother to recover but all three girls were good friends within days!

So try your best to stay out of it. Give your daughter gentle comfort and encouragement where needed. Tell her how wonderful she is and teach her to be patient. If she doesn't make too big a deal of it, I suspect the issue will resolve itself on its own and you will soon hear all three girls laughing away in your daughter's bedroom. The real challenge here is not for your daughter but for you. We are so protective of our children and our instinct is to jump in and help. We need to ignore that instinct and just sit back and let it play out.

Now might be a good time to share a little extra quality time with your daughter - go do something fun together.

-- Emuna

Tension & Snapping

Dear Emuna,

My husband and I have been married 25 years. We have a really good marriage, thank God. We take pleasure in each other's company, we can make each other laugh, we have shared goals; we seem to have all the right elements. But lately we have been snapping at each other a lot. We have some financial pressures, some tough educational decisions to make for some of our young children, one is leaving for college in September and one is about to get engage. I guess that is a lot on our plates but I don't like the direction our relationship is heading. We try to spend some time together every day but it isn't helping; it may even be making things worse. Do you have advice for me?

Frightened Wife

Dear Frightened Wife,

I understand why you are scared but you don't need to be. What you are describing is perfectly normal and you are in a better situation that most because you recognize the destructive pattern and you want to do something about it. While I steadfastly maintain that is the small, everyday things that make the most difference in a relationship, that doesn't mean that you never need to get away. I don't think marriages need grand gestures and I certainly don't think grand gestures can obviate the need for daily interaction and kindnesses, but sometimes we all need a break to get perspective. It is all too easy and extremely common to get caught up in the daily pressures and grind and to neglect to give your marriage or your husband the real attention it needs. In fact, it may even be hard to see what attention it needs. As you said, you have a good marriage and you spend time together so this behavior is confusing.

But everybody and every marriage need a break from the routine. You need to go away for a day or a night if possible, to get out of your normal environment to free the two of you to have some breathing space and some time to talk about something other than the children's needs and the bills. Every marriage, no matter how wonderful, needs this. Even if you don't think you need it, you do. It's one of those things that you can't appreciate until you try but it is my best prescription. If you can get away a little longer, it's better and a different time zone is the best of all!

But begin by leaving your home and going somewhere different so you can break the pattern and rediscover your joy in each other. I'm confident it will work; just don't wait too long to act.

-- Emuna

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