Mom plays favorites; promiscuous past; not-good-enough girlfriend: Dear Prudence dispenses advice.

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 3 2011 7:01 AM

Mom's Playing Favorites

I can't stand one of my kids and love the other to pieces. Am I a bad parent?

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Dear Prudence,
I am so ashamed to be writing this to you: I like one of my kids more than the other. I am a stay-at-home mother with two children, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. My daughter has a bright, inquisitive mind and a big personality. She loves to dance and sing and be the center of attention. She is funny and sassy and spirited. She is also as stubborn as a mule, has a hair-trigger temper, and throws screaming tantrums. My son is fun, too, but sweet and more mellow. We have worked hard not to give in to my daughter's tantrums. (Our pediatrician recommended a book on strong-willed children.) I try to discipline them evenhandedly, but it is getting hard. By the end of the day I'm resentful and grumpy about her demands and constant, rapid-fire questions. I love her, and that is why I feel so guilty that I am starting to prefer her easier sibling. I have not discussed this with my husband; I confided in my sister, and she expressed disapproval. I would like to change my feelings.

—Feeling Like a Bad Mother

Dear Feeling,
It's perfectly normal to be exhausted by a demanding child and relaxed with a mellow one. It's not going to benefit you or your children if you conclude the answer is to berate yourself for having the insight to acknowledge how you feel. What you need is a better way of handling your daughter. If you can vastly reduce the tantrums and disobedience, you won't have to work at changing your feelings, because your feelings will naturally change. I don't know what book your pediatrician suggested, but I recommend The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, by Slate contributor Alan Kazdin. He gives step-by-step instructions for curbing your child's unwanted behavior. It may seem awkward and unnatural at first: praising exuberantly when she cooperates on little things, calmly walking away in response to disobedience, creating a point system in which cumulative good conduct gets concrete rewards. But what Kazdin is doing is changing your behavior, which will result in your child responding differently to you.

If you are alone all day with two pre-schoolers, it would take a superhuman effort not to be grumpy by evening. You would be helped by building in some relief. Is there a nursery school your daughter could attend? Can you swap out baby-sitting with another parent? When your husband comes home, can he take the kids and have them play tag or otherwise run them around? A tired child tends to be a less-inquisitive child. Part of your daughter's behavior may be driven by the fact that there's a sweet interloper in the house who has stolen love and attention from her. Try to have some girls-only time with her—she will be less needy and resentful if she gets to be the only child for a while each day. You don't have to treat your children with absolute equality, which is blind to their individuality. Instead make your goal to treat each fairly, which acknowledges their differences. You are also entitled to the relief of discussing what you're going through with your husband. Talking honestly with each other about how you admire your children's uniqueness, and acknowledging that sometimes their special qualities drive you around the bend, will make you better parents.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Two-Timing Woman

Dear Prudence,
I went through a self-destructive period of about a year that involved drinking, smoking, and casual sex with multiple partners. I have since turned my life around with the help of a pastor, friends, and my parents. Before I made this transition, my younger brother was reading through my e-mail and saw a conversation with one of my partners that made our relationship clear. He informed not only my parents but everyone else in our family and his fiancee's family. I was supposed to be a bridesmaid in their wedding, but they kicked me out of the bridal party due to my moral repugnance. My brother, his now-wife, and their friends make constant references to my past. I have spoken with him about it, but he refuses to acknowledge that this is not a matter to be joked about or spread around. I tried enlisting my parents, but they feel we need to sort it out as we are adults. I am constantly filled with shame about my past transgressions when I am around my brother. What should I do?

—A Penitent Whore

Dear Penitent,
Some penitence is needed here, but it's on the part of your brother and his wife. Among your brother's offenses are reading your e-mail, making its content known to everyone, booting you from his wedding party, and spreading gossip about your personal life. To clarify, it is none of his business what you ingested or whom you bedded. It's great you were able to pull yourself out of a destructive spiral, but what you were doing was hurting only yourself. Your brother and his wife are deliberately hurting you, so they are the real sinners. Since your brother won't listen to you, and your parents won't speak to him about this, perhaps your pastor could have a talk with him. Your brother and his wife misguidedly feel morally superior, so they could use some help in being better versed, as in Matthew 7:5, in the meaning of hypocrisy. And the next time you're together and he and his wife make a disparaging remark, simply leave.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have a serious disagreement over our son and his girlfriend of about a year. Our son is a college graduate in his mid-20s who is ahead of the curve in terms of career success and maturity. His girlfriend is a few years younger, a former bar waitress who recently completed a two-year nursing degree. She's a nice young woman and devoted to our son. On the other hand, she does not have the same level of education and maturity that our son has. My wife thinks she is totally inappropriate for our son and that the girl is infatuated and clingy. She also thinks our son is blind to her limitations (if you want to call them that). I don't totally disagree, but I don't completely agree, either. My wife thinks we need to intervene and confront him with our assessment. She feels she has a duty as a mother to tell him he is on the road to making the mistake of a lifetime. I believe that our son is old enough to make his own choices and that any intervention on our part will only alienate him and drive him deeper into his girlfriend's embrace. This has become a serious issue for us. What do you think?

—Speak or Hold Our Peace

Dear Speak,
The "bar waitress" your son is dating just completed her nursing degree—she may have been waiting tables to pay for it. So however less-educated and mature she is, she's shown she has the capacity to make good choices, set goals, and meet them. It's also clear she's crazy about your son, which can be bad if it's too single-minded and unrequited or good if he's equally smitten with her. Your wife would prefer to see your son with a woman who has an MBA, M.D., or preferably both. But since you two have raised a mature, competent young man, give him credit for having the ability to choose someone worthy of his time. Since your son hasn't made any announcements, neither of you know whether he's planning to marry this young woman. But if he is, your wife's putdowns will—as you anticipate—not make him say: "Gee, Mom, you're right. Haley isn't up to my standards." Instead, he will respond, "Mom, you are an insufferable snob, and you should apologize." Despite how subtle your wife may think she's been in holding back on expressing her disapproval, I would bet that your son has detected that his mother is not wild about his girlfriend. But he doesn't care. You can't stop your wife from speaking, but you can say if she does, she'll go solo. You can also emphasize that if she makes your son choose between her approval and a young woman who adores him, your wife will lose.

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