Father Knows Best?

Jeff and I sit together in the home office of Dr. Mark, the social worker who sees our son, the son with anxiety, ADHD, and a few other letters that make life challenging, exciting, and sometimes funny. We are there to discuss Mark’s observations and suggestions.

The game of Pick Up Stix is mentioned.  My son and Dr. Mark play at the end of each session, and Jeff remarks, “Yeah, Zach is remarkably good at that game!”

“Are you kidding?!” I wonder to myself. “Have you never seen him play?  Why is your assessment of our children’s abilities so unrealistically positive?  This is why I can’t die until the kids are grown; you are loving and present and hard working – but you have no clue.”

Failure to see the boys’ struggles for what they are is just one of Jeff’s deficiencies, the long list of his parenting failures that I rehearse whenever I feel overworked or under-appreciated: Why could he never pack a diaper bag without forgetting something?  How is that we evenly split parenting hours and yet he has never once made a doctor’s appointment?  Why is he so inconsistent with discipline, letting too much slide and then all of sudden losing his temper?

I don’t want Dr. Mark to think that I’m as unaware of Zach’s struggles as Jeff is, so I say, “Wow. I think Zach is unfocussed and clumsy when he’s playing.”

“Actually,” Mark interjects, “he plays much better when Jeff is here than when you are here.”

Bracing myself for the answer, I ask timidly, “Really?”

“Yes.  And not just with the game.  When you are here, Zach is all over the room – under the table, behind the couch.  When Jeff is here, Zach sits still and is calmer.  And that calm carries over into the game.”

Knots in my stomach.  Panic in my chest.  I’m the one without a clue.  I’m ruining my kid.

“Why?” I ask without wanting to hear the answer.

“Because he’s afraid of Jeff.  And I don’t say that in a bad way.  Almost all kids are, even of the gentlest fathers, and even when Mom is the primary disciplinarian.”

Full stop.

Trying to let that sink in.

It’s not that I don’t know that fathers are different from mothers and that fathers are important.  I’ve seen the documentaries about the unruly elephants raised without males.  I’ve heard the President’s powerful speeches imploring fathers to step up to the plate.  I’ve read the research about the different and complimentary ways mothers and fathers encourage their kids on the playground.

Far more important, I was raised by a great father and I’m married to a great father.  I don’t question the importance of fathers in lives of children.

Still, I’m not prepared to hear that Zach performs better when Jeff is around, that Zach is more enjoyable to be around when Jeff is there, that Zach may learn better when Jeff is there because he can remain calmer and more focused.  That knowledge would be hard to take at any time, but I’m a homeschooling mom, for goodness sake!  His education is in my hands, and they may not be the right hands.

What do we do now? Should we put the boys back in school?  Should I get a full time job and let Jeff homeschool the boys?  Should I try to parent more like Jeff?  Or should I take a deep breath and try, for something new and different, not to overreact?

Weigh in with your thoughts this week, and I’ll respond next Friday.

Editor’s Note (1/13/12): Read Tara’s response here.


About Tara Edelschick

Right now, Tara is on sabbatical in Costa Rica. She is sleeping more, and exercising and flossing every day for the first time in her life. She is enjoying her husband, her boys, and Nafisa (the daughter she never had) more than she ever has. And she is learning to rest in the arms of the one who doesn't rank you based on how many things you can cross off your list at the end of the day. Follow her on Twitter@TaraWonders.

  • http://www.fouragainsttwo.com Mandy W

    I struggle with this myself. I hate it that the kids do better with Hubby than me. He can take them on week long camping trips and they do great and I try and take them shopping and war breaks out. It hurts me to the core. I question my methods, my words and my effectiveness which is okay to question but on the really hard days I question my worth as a mom. Not good for anyone, but it happens. Bless you and know that you are doing a good job because you were able to “hear” what was said and are processing it.

  • Sharon

    Take a deep breath Tara! I’ve seen you and Jeff in action, although relatively speaking it was for a short time. For what it’s worth, I think you and Jeff complement each other very well and your boys are delightful children. For instance, I notice that you are more detail oriented in your approach while Jeff is more big-picture oriented. You are more hands on, especially in the learning department, while Jeff hangs back to see how far the boys will take it. Your expectations of the boys are different, thus their different reaction to each of you. What is most important, I believe, is that both boys have a sense of your parental unity. I didn’t see where the two of you had a disagreement about your expectations of them, at least not in their presence. But they need both of you and your differing approaches. Neither is right or wrong, but both are needed for balance and at times one is needed more than the other. You two are doing a great job, better than most parents I’ve observed. Take the dr. info and use it but don’t let it throw you. Zach is fortunate to have such caring parents and I know that you both feel blessed to have Zach & Exra. Take care and May God Bless……………………Aunty Sharon

  • Ginny

    A good part of me smiles upon reading your post, because of how (too) well I relate to some of what you said!

    First, to answer “what do we do now”: 1- No, don’t put them back in school or switch and have Jeff homeschool. Troubles along the way shouldn’t be reason to double guess or back peddle on what you both felt you should do. 2- “Trying to parent more like Jeff,” as a simple solution, won’t work to the extent that you disagree with his perspective (“he is unrealistically positive”). 3- “Trying not to overreact” may be the beginning of the best thing you could do! But then, you need to know you’re safe in your situation, in order to do that.

    Here is my perspective. First, I suggest that bumping up against our own shortcomings is part of how we are perfected in what we are given to do. So, everything is actually okay with this picture! You are in the perfect position to make significant progress. (2 Cor. 12:8-10)

    Hopefully that idea might also help you resist fears — about your failures, about how your failures are hurting your boys, and maybe even about how your perspective could have been inaccurate — and instead take a step in humbling yourself to Dr. Mark’s observations, which represent truth in this situation.

    Next, I would offer a few thoughts. 1- Maybe it’s not that Jeff is “unrealistically positive” or has “no clue” about his kids’ shortcomings. Maybe the significance of those shortcomings has been exaggerated in your mind, possibly through fears, to where you cannot rest, as Jeff may, in God’s grace and ability to change your boys. 2- It is helpful to remember that the different responses of our husbands (from ours) should not automatically imply to us a lack of understanding on their part, but possibly a valuable, different perspective, from which we could benefit to learn something. 3- We need to accept this one difference, that kids will naturally fear their fathers more than they will their mothers. This is okay, and does NOT mean you are falling short. It should be a relief to you to accept this: rather than frantically striving to “measure up” to Jeff, you could focus on how to make the best use of the authority you do have as their mom.

    Finally, I agree with Mandy that you are doing well in that you are hearing what was said and are processing it. To the extent that you can hold it right there – resisting panic or defeat – I believe you will find you will rest more and will trust God (and Jeff) more. And in time, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised to find that your boys behave more calmly around you, too, as they do around Jeff.

    Love you! Ginny

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbarneson Jeff Barneson

    If you think that this is my opportunity to do a fist pump and declare victory for dads – think again…

    Maybe Dr. Mark is right – But I think it sort of depends on the day, how much sleep the boys have had and what they’ve had to eat. I do think that Tara has characterized our differences fairly – even generously. In addition to all she has listed, I’m typically less focused in my work with the boys than she is. I keep them up past their bedtime reading Tolkien. I’m nearly always running behind and scrambling to assemble the art supplies or woodworking tools we’re going to need for our next project.

    Anybody who’s read Tara’s homeschool-chronicles blog knows that she has done her homework. She’s read widely and engaged experts. She’s prayed. And she loves our boys completely and it shows in her teaching. God gave my sons the exact right mother.

    I’ve got a different interpretation of Zach’s Pick Up Stix performance…

    Maybe our boys are smarter (and lazier) than they let on. In my time with the boys (both Zach and Ezra) they intuitively sense my disorganization and lack of competence and step up to the plate in a way they don’t have to with Tara. They perform better with me than with Tara because they recognize that if they don’t step it up, it might not happen because mom isn’t there to bail them out.

    Just a thought…

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    You guys are reading Tolkien now?! Oh, man. Now I’m missing being there all over again. The best we did while we were there was Harry Potter. Which as lots of fun, but not Tolkien.

    Tara, you are a FANTASTIC mother — and Jeff is a fantastic father. God made *you*, and nobody else, their parents, for a reason. They need both of you, even in your sin and limitation.

    I thought Dr Mark was going to say that they performed better when Jeff was present because they were less afraid of making mistakes. He may be right in his observation (that they do differently when Jeff is there) and wrong in his diagnosis. Who knows? Just keep doing your best, discerning what is right insofar as you can, and loving them like crazy. They’ll be fine. More than that, they’ll be great. One of my favorite analogies for teaching (from Howie Hendricks) is that you’re assembling the pieces of a bomb for an explosion at a later date. He said it better. But the point is that these boys are going to explode upon the world and do wonderful things. I believe that completely.

  • Wendy

    I agree with Tim about Dr. Mark’s diagnosis. From a child’s perspective, a parent “letting too much slide” may be interpreted as a bit more “wiggle room” to make mistakes. So, how much wiggle room is optimal? I am wondering whether the educational context influences whether a more “disciplined” (less wiggle room) or more “lenient” (more wiggle room) approach is best. In some instructional contexts consistent feedback may support learning. If a child has incorrectly solved two or three math problems in a series, allowing the child to complete the full series of similar problems without correction may reinforce a misconception. This “reinforcement” may then make it harder for the child to learn the correct way to solve these types of problems. In such a context, more “wiggle room” may not be beneficial. Yet, if you want to evaluate whether a child understands how to solve these math problems independently, extra “wiggle room” may provide a more relaxed context that allows the child to better demonstrate what he or she understands and can do.

    I also agree with Sharon. I think you are both amazing parents and your differing styles balance and complement each other. Moreover, I believe a variety of interpersonal relationships are important for healthy development. I know that the people in my life (friends, family members, teachers, and mentors) each support my learning and understanding in unique, important, and beneficial ways. I’m grateful to have each of these people in my life and I am grateful that each has helped me to see and understand the word in a different way. I know your children benefit from all of the ways you love, support, and guide them and from the varied ways you support their learning. I also admire that you both are willing to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses and consider what you can do independently and as a team to improve your parenting and teaching. That is truly commendable!