Mom’s the Boss, Dad

My father was the strong authority in our house during my childhood. In my family, I’m the strong authority — and I’m the mother. How common is this?      

One thing’s for sure. It’s more common than it used to be. More and more moms are telling me — usually in exasperation — that they are the disciplinarians in their homes. They set the limits, the structure and the rules.

The refrain sounds something like this: “I know my discipline style isn’t the greatest. I tend to talk too much, negotiate and nag, but at least I’m trying. Unlike Disney Dad over there, or Mr. Oblivious, or Ms. Laissez-faire, or Mr. ‘Honey, I was that way when I was a kid, and I turned out okay.’”

Yes, your situation seems, if not all too common, not all that unusual. During parenting presentations, when I speak about this phenomenon, invariably I see women’s elbows meet men’s ribs, knowing glances from mate to mate, sheepish husbandly smiles and “This shrink has you pegged” wifely looks.

A column is too short a space to speculate why all this is so. For now, let me briefly speak to the men. Then the women.

Gentlemen: Next time you hear your wife locked in a verbal battle with a child, don’t lounge in the other room, thinking, “You know, if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell which one of them is the 12-year-old.” Get up, enter the scene and pull the plug. “That’s not just your mom you’re talking to that way. That’s my wife. Go to your room. I’m going to ask your mom and my wife what she wants me to do about this. And then I’m going to do more.”

Guys, do this a few times, and you’ll see warmth from the ladies for hours. Sometimes I give my boys a couple of bucks and tell them, “Go give your mother grief. I’ll be right in.” Just teasing. I don’t really have to pay them to give her grief.

This approach won’t balance out the overall exercise of parental authority. But it is a natural place to begin. And it makes the ladies feel very valuable.

Ladies: However frustrating it is to be the lead disciplinarian most of the time, remember that you also have most of the leverage. Let’s say you impose on Charity a 500-word essay for her surly lack of gratitude, along with a two-day grounding. What if Dad passively fails to support you or actively undermines you? Either way, you have quiet power. Who does most of the taxi-ing? Who plans and cooks meals? Who washes the clothes? In most families, even if Mom works outside the home, she still does the majority of daily childcare. And that gives her the majority of discipline clout.

If Dad doesn’t support the grounding, is he willing to take Charity to practice? Will he wash her uniform? Will he pack her lunch? Will he take her to babysit?

Certainly I’m not advocating you cause marital strife. I’m pointing out that, when Mom sets most of the expectations and rules, automatically she maintains control of most of the discipline leverage. And when you have leverage, you don’t need to talk so much, over-negotiate and nag.

In time, hopefully, the guys will see a calmer, more resolute mom who doesn’t get emotionally carried away, but in fact uses real authority to get cooperation.

Oh, yeah, men, one final point — and don’t take this as nagging. Your wife’s style may sometimes be too wordy or too moody, but that does not reduce her God-given authority. Don’t minimize her motherly role because she doesn’t always exert it well. Besides, if she gets more support from you, she may feel and act less frustrated.

Then you will be better able to tell which one is the 12-year-old.

For more of Ray Guarendi’s wit and wisdom, visit him on the web at