Q: My two children, ages eight and five, visit my
ex-husband every other weekend. Invariably, they come home with tales
of nasty things he has said and lies he has told about me. I don't know
what to say in response to this stuff. Sometimes I just go into my room
and cry, not because of what he said about me, but because of the
confusion and hurt this must be causing the kids. I've told them I
don't want to hear it, but they say they need to tell me. How should I
respond to these reports?
A: I agree with the children. It is better that they tell you
than that they keep these things locked up inside themselves. I also
agree with you. The person with whom the children share this junk needs
to be sensitive to the unfortunate position in which the father has
placed them. So listen and respond with utmost sensitivity, so as not
to further feed the fires of slander.
I would suggest that you simply say something like this: "I
can understand your father saying things like that. I lived with him
long enough to understand how he thinks. If you ask me, I'll tell you a
different story, but then that's no different from the two of you
telling me different stories
when you fight with each other, now is it?"
And let it go at that.
By the way, contrary to pseudo-psychological rumor, this sort
of thing is not confusing to your children. Distressing, yes,
but not confusing. In and of itself, this sort of thing is not likely
to cause them psychological harm. The important thing—which you are
doing—is that you help lessen, rather than exacerbate, their distress.
I applaud you.
Q: My second husband reads me your column every week. It's
infuriating! He says I don't discipline my two children, which isn't
true, and that I won't let him discipline, which is true. The
truth is, he doesn't discipline; he picks. What am I supposed to do?
A: First, to your husband: I do not approve of what I term
"beating one's spouse" with my column. You do not convert a person to
this very traditional point of view—which is not mainstream and
therefore causes some people considerable dissonance—by forcing it upon
Second, to you: One of the reasons the failure rate for second
marriages is greater than for first marriages—especially when children
are involved—is the failure of the mother to vest her second husband
with full disciplinary privileges. Quite simply, you cannot be truly
married, and you cannot be a true family, unless and until you do.
As for your husband "picking" on the children, when a wife
prevents her husband from disciplining, the husband resorts to
"picking." That, of course, only serves to confirm the wife's belief
that the husband would actually do some harm to the kids if he
disciplined. So she continues to protect, and round and round they go,
only to eventually stop in a lawyer's office.
The fact is, your husband may be inclined to be stricter than
not going to harm the kids. He may also make some disciplinary blunders
as he learns the ins and outs of disciplining your children. All
parents make disciplinary blunders. A blunder here and there doesn't
cause harm, either. So relax. Be a wife first and a mom second.
Also, by taking the leash off your husband, you take a burden
off yourself. As you should already know, the most effective discipline
from within the context of a functional marriage, not from one parent
working alone or against the other.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the
Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information
about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.