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How to Help Your Husband Be a Better Dad

Many mothers worry that their husbands are too hard on their kids or that they are disconnected from them. Others are concerned that their husbands work too much, yell at their kids or that they never set boundaries. The truth is, we, too make mistakes with our kids. Mothers tend to be more aware of our shortcomings because we spend more time with our kids, watch how they respond to their fathers and think more about how to have closer relationships with our kids. Because we usually examine our kids behaviors and moods more closely than fathers do, we often evaluate the strength or weaknesses of our husband’s parenting style. The million dollar question is: if we see that our husbands are making serious mistakes with our kids, like yelling, ignoring or hitting our kids, what do we do? How can we make them better dads?

Many of us feel helpless to change our husbands, but we have more power than we think. Here’s where we start. Let me say at the outset, that these things are very hard to implement- requiring discipline and self-control. 

First, identify specifically what your husband does that is harmful to your kids.

Then, make sure that it really is harmful. Many fathers set and enforce clear boundaries without being mean or yelling. We may disagree with the boundaries, but if they are reasonable (not letting your daughter get a cell phone until she’s 15) we need to let them go. We may intensely disagree but we must remember to pick our battles. If, on the other hand, our husband sets a boundary and berates our child while doing it, the berating must stop. I recommend giving clear thought to his parenting and make a list of very specific things that he does that you are concerned about.

Second, give him the benefit of the doubt before you approach him.

Many fathers ignore their kids because they were ignored. Every parent comes into parenting with a “preload” that influences their parenting. The preload is the sum of experiences that we had as children with our parents. Our experiences often live in our subconscious but they have very powerful effects on our parenting. If you were abused by your father, you may expect your husband to abuse your kids. If your husband’s father yelled at him, he is more likely to yell at your kids. Pay attention to his behavior and if they reflect behaviors he experience by his mother or father  when he was a child, empathize. This does not excuse the behavior but it allows you to take a different tactic when approaching him.

Third, give him praise.

Again, this sounds counterintuitive, but men won’t be open to change unless they feel respected and appreciated. If you come at him with an attitude of ‘I am so sick of you being gone, yelling, being too strict’ whatever, you’re wasting your breath. So find a few things that he does well with your kids (or wants to do well) then acknowledge those.

Fourth, negotiate.

Rather than focusing on just what you want, focus on what you think he wants. If he does want to be a better dad, have your kids want to spend time with him or talk to them more, remind him that you admire that he wants these. If he doesn’t want anything to get better in his relationship with your kids, you can tell him how much better his life would be and how much happier your kids would be if they had a stronger relationship.

Putting it all together: here are some sample conversations that work.

Sample 1. “Honey, I’m struggling a bit with the kids and I need your input. They tend to always come to me with issues and I would like them to start coming to you. They need your influence, not just mine. Have you noticed how they always come to me? Why do you think this is?”

At this point, he may blame you, but don’t get mad. He’s being defensive. Keep going. “Yeah, maybe I do tend to pander them and I know that this just makes them want to run to me. How can I help them come to you? I think that the two of us need to work together to make this happen. What are your suggestions?” You’ve pinpointed a problem, given him encouragement and praise instead of criticism. You’ve also begun a negotiation process.

“How about we try having me back away a bit and you spend one-on-one time with them on weekends? I know that they would love this- and it would help them feel closer to you. What do you think?” Now he feels that the kids want to be with him and that you are willing to give up dominating their time with you.

Sample 2. If your husband is too strict, is mean to your kids or yells, you need a very sensitive tactic. Here is another sample conversation.

“Honey- I’m concerned about you. Often when you are home, you seem stressed and unhappy. Is work OK? What do you think is making you stressed? How can I help you?” This keeps the focus on him-not the kids and he feels that you empathize with him and that you have his best interest at heart.

“I know that you yell a lot. Or that sometimes you go after the kids and I know that this comes from your stress. The problem is, releasing your stress on the kids ruins your relationship with them and I know that you don’t want this. They don’t want it either. The quicker we can get at the root of your stress and anger, I know that you’ll feel better.” If he pushes back, stop and reopen the issues a couple of weeks later. If he believes that you are concerned about him, not just his effect of the kids, he’ll open up. Then you proceed.

“I’m wondering if your parents, or dad, yelled at you? I know that we all repeat our past, even though we don’t mean to. I’ve done that a lot (give him an example) so that he doesn’t feel alone in his behavior. This also gives him an out. It allows him to see that his yelling (whatever) isn’t something that he wants to do. It also gives him a reason that feels out of his control.

At that point, you help him find out what stresses him. Then, you can help him see its effects not just on him, but on his relationship with the kids. Now he’s ready to make some changes. Help him recognize when he repeats bad behaviors so he can stop.

Sample 3. Many times mothers experience husbands doing things with the kids that we really disagree with: telling them to go on birth control when they’re 14, allowing them to watch violent movies, be on social medial as long as they want when they’re 12, etc. Divorced mothers can have an especially hard time. Their ex- husbands may live with one girlfriend after another or remarry a woman who is cruel to them. The list goes on. Here’s how you can handle this.

“ Tom, I know that we have disagreements and a lot of hurt between us. I’d like to talk about the kids-not about us. Can we meet?” This takes him off of the defensive.

Then you move on. “I know that you want to be a good dad. That’s one of the reasons I married you (if you didn’t, don’t say this.) Parenting together is really hard- I don’t know about you, but it’s a real struggle. Here’s what I was thinking. I know that there are things that are important to you when it comes to parenting our kids. If you write down your top 3 or 4 priorities, I would like to honor them. Then, I can write down 3-4 things that are important to me. Would you be willing to honor those?”

In each of these scenarios, you have used four of the tools. You have pinpointed exactly what you disagree with. Then, you have praised him and shown empathy. You’ve taken the focus off of the kids and what he does wrong and you’ve put the focus on him in a very positive way. You have negotiated with him, getting what you want and (hopefully) helped him not only be a better parent, but a happier person.

Raising our kids to be emotionally strong, resilient and have strong self-esteem is exhausting. It requires courage and grit.  Even when we try to be the best mother ever, we fall short. That’s why we need help- a spouse- to help grow strong, healthy and productive kids. Even the best  parents disagree and we must learn to help our husbands be better dads, just like we need others to help us be better moms.

Guest Author: Meg Meeker

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