How do we deal with bad behavior in children when our spouse does the very same thing?
“If you’re going to leave your pants on the floor and your shoes in the middle of the hallway where everyone can trip on them, how on earth am I supposed to get the children to put their things where they belong?”
“If you can’t get up on time in the morning, how am I going to teach the kids to?”
“If you shout and call people names when you’re upset, then how can I ask the kids to control their mouths when they’re mad?”
We all know that the parental model is important. “Monkey see, monkey do” — children are all too likely to pick up our spouse’s bad habits (somehow, we’re convinced they either won’t pick up our own or that we don’t have any!). Watching our spouse’s dysfunction annoys us not only because it’s upsetting, but also because we’re worried that we’re going to see it many times over in our kids. It’s bad enough having one messy spouse; imagine an entire household of untidy people!
Aside from the unpleasantness it would cause us, we don’t want to send our children out into the world with such bad habits. What will our children’s spouses think? (“Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”) More important than our reputation, we worry about our children’s future shalom bayis (“Who is going to put up with that kind of behavior?”). We don’t want our children to have lifelong problems just because their father/mother didn’t hang his/her clothes in the closet (or arrive on time, or keep files organized, or wash plates immediately after use).
The completion of adolescence does not mark the completion of human development. We continue to grow throughout our lifetime, improving in all areas of functioning, feeling and thinking. At 25 or 40, we still have a long way to go and even at 80 or 90 there is constant room for improvement. Moreover, development tends to be uneven. Our ability to manage our negative thoughts may be zooming ahead while our ability to get every crumb off the dishes we wash may lag behind. Or, the crumb situation might be improving dramatically while we have quite a distance to go to conquer our tendency toward irritability.
The consequence of all this is that our spouse is not yet perfect (we’ll leave ourselves out of this for now). It is almost a certainty that our children will see their other parent’s imperfections. Naturally, they’ll ask questions like, “If Mommy mumbles when she bentches, then why can’t I?” or “If Daddy doesn’t have to take his books off the table, then why do I have to?” and so on. They’ll challenge the double-standard more and more so as they grow older.
Sometimes they don’t do this directly or out loud; they simply copy the lazier parent and dare the other parent to do anything about it (not necessarily verbally, but simply with their non-cooperation). When one must answer the questions, one must leave the other parent intact. While it is important to teach a child to clean up after himself, it is even more important that the child maintain respect for each parent. Saying things like, “Because your mother is ignorant,” may provide a moment of stress release for an agitated spouse who happens to be wondering the very same thing, but it can also irreparably damage the mother-child relationship and the mother’s ability to have positive impact on the child long into the future. Instead, the parent can try these sorts of replies:
When it comes to dealing with your spouse, keep in mind that angry communications, nagging, attempting to control, and reacting unpleasantly are all unlikely to help and very likely to hurt. Instead, mention to your spouse your concern for your children’s optimal development and ask him/her for feedback and assistance. Dealing with this together can bring you closer and help your spouse want to make progress in a weak area. When there is disagreement as to whether the behavior is problematic or not, outside intervention with a Rav or counselor can help solve the dilemma.