Dear Prudence: My husband punishes our children far too roughly.

Help! My Husband Punishes Our Children Far Too Roughly. What Can I Do?

Help! My Husband Punishes Our Children Far Too Roughly. What Can I Do?

Advice on manners and morals.
Oct. 9 2014 6:00 AM

Twist and Shout

My husband punishes our children far too roughly. What can I do?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been together for more than 10 years and he is a great husband. He dotes on me and is kind and considerate. However, much to my disappointment, he is not a great a father to our children, ages 3 and 5. We both work full-time and split child care duties, but he seems to take little enjoyment in parenting. He’s often irritable and cranky in their presence, and loses his temper with both kids on a regular basis. What worries me the most is that he can be physically rough with them. He’s never hit them outright, but he will grab and handle them in a rough way—a few times there have been marks afterward. We have talked about this, many, many times but nothing changes. I have also gotten visibly upset with him about it in front of the kids, which maybe I shouldn’t do. The real problem is not that he loses his cool, but that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the way he treats them, even though he would never treat me like that. It’s hard to talk about this with anyone without making him sound horrible, and he’s not a monster. I don’t want to divorce him, but I feel like I’m not doing my job as a mother if I let this behavior continue. But then I wonder if I’m overreacting, considering what the rest of America seems to think is OK regarding discipline. Do I drag him to anger management counseling? Get his mother involved? Try to find a part-time job and just wait it out until they’re older and less frustrating to parent? I desperately need some objectivity, please!

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—Worried Mom

Dear Worried,
I have gotten many letters over the years from adults who grew up in such circumstances. They have one loving parent, and one abuser. They are writing because while they don’t want to cut the loving parent out of their lives, they choose to no longer see their abuser. I often suggest to these letter writers that they set some terms for spending time only with the decent parent and make clear they will no longer subject themselves to mental, emotional, sometimes even physical abuse from the awful one. I also point out that while one parent may have been kind, that person failed in an essential duty: keeping the children safe. You do not want to be the parent who fails her children, so you must take decisive action. Your husband has powerful incentive to address this fundamental failing: He adores you. You have to let him know that if he can’t recognize he must change, and then do it, your marriage will be in grave jeopardy. You are not overreacting. You aren’t describing a loving guy who sometimes gets exasperated. You are describing a cold, irritable father, who is leaving marks on his kids when he’s angry. I don’t believe in corporal punishment, but again, your kids aren’t getting an occasional spanking from a “traditional” but otherwise benevolent parent. Think about the fact that you’re considering working less in order to protect your children from their father. As for your getting upset when he’s hurting them—I would hope you intervene to protect them. I don’t see a solution in enlisting his mother to reform him. This is something you need to address together as parents. Tell your husband that he needs a complete overhaul in his approach to parenting. Say that you want to start by going to parenting classes together—then find a high-quality, nurture-based one. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of some progress. You should also insist on couples counseling, and he would likely benefit from individual therapy. You know he is capable of kindness and love. If he can’t show that to his own children, then it really doesn’t matter how attentive a husband he is to you.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
When my son was a small child, he suffered a playground accident that resulted in an injury that may have affected his chances of ever fathering a child. Because he was so young at the time, he retained no memories of the accident and subsequent operation and hospitalization. When he was growing up, I saw no reason to remind him of the incident, and the subject never came up at all. Now he is 30 years old and working very happily as a teacher. He loves children, and has been very clear from his adolescent years that he intends to have a family of his own. Recently he met and fell in love with a colleague who feels exactly the same way, and the two are planning to marry within the next year. They also plan to start making babies soon afterward. They are very excited about this. My question is, should I tell them now about his potential issues, or should I let them find out for themselves (a process that could take years)? And if I tell them, how do I broach the subject after all these years?

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—Wannabe-Grand

Dear Wannabe,
I hope that after your son tangled with the jungle gym (or whatever it is that happened—I will not speculate further because male readers are already wincing) that he healed just fine and all is well with the family jewels. But let’s say this young couple starts trying to conceive and nothing happens. It’s a little nutty that someone who wants to be a grandmother would let them endure this frustration while withholding crucial medical information. Your son is engaged and he and his fiancée are talking about wanting to have children, so now is the time to get the ball rolling on this conversation. Tell your son privately what happened long ago. Say that it hasn’t been relevant to his health until now, but he needs to know his history in case it does turn out there’s an issue. Then it’s up to him whether to get checked out now or let nature take its course for a while. I hope that your son is forthright with his fiancée, and that she tells him that whatever the situation turns out to be, they will figure it out as a couple.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I’m an administrative assistant at a state university where the wages are determined by the Board of Regents. I make $28,000 a year and am going broke. Even though I love my job, I decided to look for a better-paying one and my boss, a tenured professor, was upset to lose me. He tried to get me a raise to $35,000 a year, but HR wouldn’t go for it. Instead I got a raise of 65 cents an hour. The professor felt bad about this and gave me a personal check for $5,000. I know our wages are awful, and that they are better at other state institutions, but I don’t know if I should take the money or not. Please advise.

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—In a Conundrum

Dear Conundrum,
It sounds as if you have two questions: Can you take the money? And if you take the money, can you continue looking for another job? It says something about the workplace that when I have turned to my employment-law guru, Philip Gordon, for advice on people who masturbate at the office or people who lie on their résumés, he’s got a lot of experience. But he hadn’t encountered the dilemma of a boss giving a personal check to an employee not for any quid pro quo, but just to acknowledge that she’s not well-enough compensated. He said it’s likely there’s no prohibition at your university for your specific situation, but that you should look in your employment handbook. There are rules involving outside payment to professors and other university employees, so you need to confirm that what’s being offered to you falls outside those restrictions. Likely you'll be able to take this check, and you should do so in the spirit of its being a bonus for services already rendered, not a bribe to keep you from looking for another job. Then, your only obligation would be to report this income to the IRS. But first write your boss a note telling him how grateful you are for his generosity and acknowledgement that you’re underpaid for what you do, and keep searching for a workplace that appreciates you with a decent paycheck.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife has been at her new job for a few months and at the end of October her office is having a Halloween party. While we were out this past weekend, my wife found a cheap pair of novelty glasses. Her idea is to use these glasses to be Jim Jones for Halloween, complete with pitcher of Kool-Aid. My wife can have a pretty dark sense of humor. Is this costume idea too taboo for the workplace? If Jim Jones is a no-go, she’s noticing how the glasses also make her faintly resemble David Koresh. We welcome any suggestions.

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—Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

Dear Don’t,
So your wife has a special affinity for lunatic cult leaders whose ends are accompanied by mass death. This is something she probably wants to keep under wraps until maybe next Halloween, when her colleagues have a better understanding of her sense of humor. As far as the “Jim Jones glasses” are concerned, when you look up images of Jones he occasionally is seen wearing rectangular sunglasses. This is hardly a distinctively identifiable look, except perhaps to your wife. Given that Jones died in 1978, it’s also likely that anyone in her office under 40 won’t get the reference. That she thinks her Jim Jones glasses also make her look like David Koresh says more about your wife than spectacle fashion, since Koresh wore the aviator glasses everyone was wearing in his day. If your wife begins contemplating more timely costumes, I’d suggest she avoid dressing up as an ISIS fighter or Ebola patient. And if I were you, I’d think twice if she tells you she’s mixed up a refreshing pitcher of powdered drink.

—Prudie

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