Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting
Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting

Undermining Your RulesUndermining Your Rules

"Who's that?"
"Lana. I met her at the bus station."
What's that you're caring?"
"That's my bag of drugs."
"Are you crazy? Get her and that out of this house this instant!"
"But, Mom, Dad always lets me bring strange women and drugs up to my room when I'm at his house."

Maybe not women and drugs, but - no question - the rules often do differ.

"But, Dad, I can't fall asleep this early on a Saturday. When I'm at Mom's, we always get to stay up till eleven."

It's like all the rules that I have are out the window when they are at their mother's. There it's just fun and games. They eat snacks that I don't allow, they watch TV programs they know they're not supposed to, and they stay up as late as they want. And then I get the fallout. They fuss at me about my rules because their mother lets them do whatever they want. She's completely undermining all the limits that I set with the kids

This is a big problem for many divorced parents: One set of rules with one parent, a completely different set of rules with the other parent, and the children always fussing at the parent with the stricter rules.

"But, Dad, it's not fair. Mom says we never have to."

It drives me crazy. How am I supposed to get them to have any control at all when their mother undermines everything I do? How am I supposed to have any control when there's no consistency of rules between us?

The rule about consistency is that there does not have to be consistency. It is not necessary.

But how are the children ever going to learn any rules if the rules keep changing from place to place? How can I have rules that are going to work if none of them exist when they are with their mother?

At quite an early age, children learn about different rules with different people in different situations. For example, by three years old most kids easily handle the differences in rules for home or preschool or with a sitter. Even when parents are not divorced, they often don't have the same rules. Their kids learn and use those two different sets of rules to their best advantage: what I can get away with with Dad, what I can get away with with Mom.

Mom gets mad if I don't was my hands before eating. Dad couldn't care less. Dad makes a fuss about putting my feet on the couch, so I take them down whenever he comes in the room. But Mom doesn't even notice.

That behavior is neither bad nor good, but simply what human children do. They always push for a better deal if they think they can get it, and in that pursuit they will use the best weapons possible. All children will try or say anything if it works in getting them out of doing what they do not feel like doing. By experience, they learn which responses prove to be winners and which do not. If they find a winner, they stay with it. Fortunately, parents have a very effective weapon to combat these tactics.

"But at Dad's I don't have to brush my teeth every night."
"How nice for you that you don't have to do it at your father's. But here you do."

It doesn't matter at all what the rules are with their other parent. What matters is what your rules are and that they cannot undermine your rules by clever fussing.

"But it's not fair. Dad doesn't make us do it. Why should we have to do it here?"
"I want you to brush your teeth now."
But It's not fair. At Dad's..."
"You heard me, Jessica."

They eventually learn that the "I don't have to do it at Dad's" argument is ineffective. However, this doesn't guarantee they'll stop their fussing and carrying on, or that they won't try a new tactic:

Shucks, I guess that line isn't working. I'll have to think of something else.

"Mom, I really don't feel so good. Can I lie down?"

I "But at Dad's..." always gets "That's nice, but here this is the rule," and if you don't pick up on further fussing, then "But at Dad's," fades away as a favorite manipulation because it has not proved effective. You have not allowed it to be. And maybe they do what you want them to do, or maybe they don't.

"But, Mom, I still don't think I can brush my teeth. I think there's something wrong with my hand. It can't pick up stuff right. Look at it. It's all funny. I can't hold a toothbrush. I can't look, I keep dropping it."

But at least their resistance to your rules has nothing to do with what goes on with the other parent, and everything to do with you - which, although not always so easy, is how it should be.