When Dad Bends the Rules

What to do when Dad's parenting style is more lax than yours.

Q. I hate to complain about my husband, because he's a totally committed father. But whenever he "takes over," he chooses the easy way out. If he's putting Gaby to bed, her 7:30 p.m. curfew morphs into 11 p.m., and only after a game of tag. Lunch with Daddy is nearly always French fries and a fruit-punch chaser. How do I get him to do a better job?

A. Yours is a classic point -- and we completely support you for jumping on your concerns right now. As legions of parents who've gone before you will testify, bad habits that develop early on in routine areas like sleep and food are incredibly resistant to fixing. Your husband may think it's no biggie if your toddler stays up past bedtime (and on occasion it isn't), but what will happen the night before Gaby's first test in second grade? With children, the stakes just get higher and higher.

Still, we can't give you the classic answer -- get this guy in line pronto. Who knows whether he's just looking for the easy way out? Maybe he gives Gaby French fries because he doesn't want her to have food issues, or he roughhouses because his own dad didn't play with him enough and he doesn't want to repeat the pattern with Gaby. These are parenting-philosophy issues that you guys need to talk about.

And if it turns out that his food choices and bedtime lapses don't stand up to scrutiny, you've still got to avoid hammering him so much that he takes a pass on parenting altogether. You may indeed be right, but you don't want to "right" yourself all the way into becoming the only competent parent. So when you're not miffed, sit down with him and start hashing out these concerns. Explain your point of view, give the rationale behind your strategies, and let him do the same. You may happily learn that some of his ideas aren't so off-the-wall after all. As for that rowdy game of tag, together you can find a better time of day for that.

Kathy Bishop and Julia Whitehead are the authors of The City Parent Handbook: The Complete Guide to the Ups and Downs and Ins and Outs of Raising Young Kids in the City (Rodale, 2004).

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.

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