Current Issue

Q:  My husband and I have a four-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. They both whine and cry when they don’t get their way and don’t seem to understand that No means No. In addition, there are lots of sibling rivalry and hassles about doing what they’re told. Because of the demands of our jobs, my husband and I end up doing a lot of tag-team parenting, especially when it comes to getting the kids to their after-school programs, getting them fed, and seeing to it that they do their homework. I feel like  all we do is scream and yell. I realize this is a tall order, but can  you give us some useful suggestions?

A:  You’re describing what I call the “frantic family syndrome,” the result of emotional resources that are stretched to the max by an overload of outside commitments. It’s fairly clear that you and your husband spend most of your time dashing from one obligation to another, somewhat like the “plate spinners” on the old Ed Sullivan Show would dash from one spinning plate to another. As a consequence, you’re a family in name only. I’ll wager that you rarely sit down to a peaceful, unhurried dinner together, that the last time you went on a family picnic or took a leisurely stroll through a zoo was too long ago to clearly remember, and that by the time the kids get to bed, you’re too exhausted to be husband and wife.

An adult or adults and children who are bound by biological or legal ties can claim the title of family, but to actually be a family in the true sense of the word requires a commitment to spending a good amount of time in the pursuit of nothing more than being together, enjoying one another’s company. (And by the way, sitting in the same room staring at a television set doesn’t count.)

So yes, I do indeed have some useful suggestions. First, I have to believe that if one of you quit his or her job, the overall level of stress in your  family would come down considerably. Studies have shown that most second incomes do nothing but increase family expenditures and push the family into a higher tax bracket, all the while creating the illusion that the family is enjoying a higher standard of living than is actually the case. The end result is a significant increase in the family’s debt load, which makes “necessary” a second income that was not necessary to begin with. If you don’t see how you can live on only one income given the debt you’ve already accumulated, I recommend seeing a financial counselor.

In the final analysis, you may have to make a choice between ever-diminishing financial stress and ever-increasing family chaos. I don’t see this going anywhere but down if you try to maintain the status quo.

Second, I recommend taking the kids out of most of their after-school activities, or at the very least not replacing one when it expires. In the future, limit after-school activities to one per child per season (excepting summer, which should be reserved solely for family activities), with the caveat that no activity can interfere with your ability to sit down together every evening to a relaxed family supper. I have to believe that the discipline problems you’re having with your children will begin to “fix” themselves as your family gains a sense of equilibrium.

In any case, you aren’t going to be able to effectively discipline the kids until you have restored balance and discipline to the family unit.

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.

Frantic Family

by John Rosemond
From the September 2005 Signs