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Husband's Inconsistency in
Disciplining 3 Year Old

QUESTION: Please help me. I am at my wit's end with my husband. I stay at home with our two children (ages 3yrs and 5mos) while my husband works full-time 9-5 Mon-Fri. My problem is that he views my discipline as harsh and often questions me in front of our son. In many situations, my husband will "discipline" in one breath and apologize or hug him in the next.

This all came to a head this summer while on holidays. In a temper, our son threw a toy and hit our daughter in the head. I felt that he needed discipline and asked my husband to attend to it while I calmed our daughter down. He gave our son a little tap on his rear and then hugged him because our son was crying.

I was furious that he was sending mixed messages to him about discipline. I told him this and he told me that I as a cold b**** towards our son. I feel that he has made me into the sole disciplinarian, because his discipline is erratic and unpredictable. We have tried talking about this before, and for a while, he is good. Then after a while, he slips back into his old ways.

This is the only bone of contention in our relationship. He is a loving doting father and a wonderful husband otherwise. Can you help me?

It appears that your husband is over-identifying with your son's emotional pain, while ignoring his son's needs for clear limits. You are correct in your assessment that he is giving double messages which will end up confusing your child. It is your husband who is confused, but this is no excuse for verbal abuse or undermining your authority in front of your son!

Your spouse is a great Dad with a blind spot about his son's "crying". He is not accurately responding to his child's needs. It is likely that he is projecting unresolved pain from his childhood that is distorting his parenting abilities. Your husband is missing the fact that children need limits to develop a sense of the other person's feelings. This is the way they learn empathy. Without developing and ability to empathize with others, your child could experience difficulty with relationships in the future. The ability to develop and sustain relationships is a key element to a healthy life. Discipline at this age is a part of helping your child develop empathy for others.

Let your husband know that there are at least three good reasons to become motivated towards consistency in discipline. Firstly, your three-year-old does need to know that love includes limits, and his parents are the best people to teach him this because they love him! Tell your husband that if he does not set limits now, your son will be faced with learning appropriate boundaries from strangers who may have little or no affection for him. It is in his son's best interests that his Daddy who cares for him, teaches him not to throw objects at people, rather than learning limits the hard way.

Secondly, misconstruing a child's tears (in the above example) for extreme emotional pain may create exaggerated responses from your son in the future. It will leave the door open to the potential for manipulative behavior which could cause even greater escalation and confusion about what constitutes "too much" pain for your son as time goes on. And thirdly, marital discord increases when parents do not resolve conflicts. Failing to create parental teamwork in your partnership creates division which can have damaging effects on your marriage over time.

Make it clear to your husband that you expect him to reinforce the rules you make together. Do not accept name calling and ask your husband to consider the roots of his difficulty with effective and consistent discipline. Parenting classes and popular books on child rearing that address discipline such as "Discipline Without Spanking or Shouting" by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Unell may also prove useful, particularly if your husband is at a loss for age-appropriate guidelines.

Consider couples' counseling focused on resolving parenting conflicts if your husband continues to experience difficulty in approaching discipline as a parental team. You have so much that is great together, why let this spoil your otherwise loving situation? Nip this problem in the bud before it has a chance to cause further damage!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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