THE PROBLEM: My middle son (he’s 9) has a habit of ‘playing both ends against the middle.’ What I mean is, he tries to get people on his side. Like, when I tell him he can’t do something, he’ll go tell his dad I said ‘no.’ Sometimes, his dad supports my decision, but other times, I get an earful from my husband about why I should say ‘yes.’ My husband will even overturn my decision on occasion, which I feel undermines my authority. We were in the car the other day and my son asked if he could play video games and I said: “Not now. Why don’t you look at the beautiful fall leaves for a while?” Then my son said: “Dad, can I?” And my husband said “Sure.” I know this is a parenting issue between us, but I see my son telling one friend what another said or trying to get one sibling to gang up with him against the other, so it’s not just with us. Any ideas?
MARY SAYS: Sometimes, the answer shows up in the question, and indeed, you have correctly identified that this is a parenting issue. I would encourage you to speak to your husband about it. Maybe you already have, but it’s time to have a formal ‘sit down’ and share your concerns in a direct way.
And if you really want your husband to listen, start by telling him how you have contributed to this dynamic.
For example, what do you do when your husband overrules you? Argue? Turn to the window and pout? Secretly rage? Most likely, you’re taking your husband’s rulings as an affront to your own authority, when it’s not your wellbeing at stake here. I also wonder if you have a habit of inserting yourself into conversations between your husband and your son; seemingly harmless, but in an effort to control the discussion, do you find yourself redirecting them to outcomes that are more satisfying to you?
I don’t know your answers to any of these questions, but I encourage you to take inventory. Be honest! Because between the two of you, you’re teaching your son how to triangulate, an extremely toxic habit that I applaud you for recognizing and doing something about.
Do your homework on what the consequences are of triangulating with others and be prepared to educate your husband. While your son’s habit of pitting you and your husband against each other may be compromising your family’s wellbeing, he will more than likely go on to use this technique in relationships outside the family, which you are already observing.
And nobody wants to hang out with someone whose allegiance shifts whenever they want something.
As a team, you and your husband can change this dynamic by agreeing to let each of you develop your own relationship with your son, without interference from the other. Once this ground rule is in place, it’s easy. Whenever either of you is talking to your son, the other recuses his or herself. No corrections, no redirects, or no undermining the other. When your son says “Can I, Dad?” your husband’s job will be to say: “That’s between you and Mom.”
Once you both get good at this, you can start having more natural three-way conversations, where each of you is respected as an individual and parents are given the respect they’re due.
ERIKA SAYS: It appears as though your son has mastered the art of manipulation, a skill all children can unfortunately get pretty good at with practice. Using one parent to undermine the other is a tell-tale sign that your son has adopted this unhealthy pattern of behavior, and as you mentioned, possibly an indication that your son does not respect authority. I would encourage you to help him break the habit now, so this learned ‘skill’ doesn’t develop into a toxic trait as an adult.
Have a conversation with your son about how aligning with one person to control another can be hurtful. Encourage him to speak directly to whomever he is requesting something, and if he doesn’t like the answer, he needs to either accept it or find a resolution without having to manipulate his way into getting what he wants.
For your part, pay attention to how often you’re telling your son ‘no,’ and whether or not you’re justifying your response truthfully. The suggestion that he do something else (look at the leaves!) is not a clear enough answer. Vague responses like this might leave your son feeling unheard or confused, which is possibly why he turns to his dad. Instead, respond with confidence and authority—and honesty. Something like: “Today is an electronic-free day. I want us to enjoy each other’s company and make memories.”
It’s also a good idea to be on the same page with your husband with regards to discipline. Help your husband understand that his children look to him to model behaviors, particularly how to treat you with respect. If either parent disagrees with a decision, it should be done privately.
Your son is learning the art of communication. Kids don’t easily take ‘no’ for an answer; they want what they want, and they’ll go to great lengths to get it. Integrity, respect for others, and kindness toward his peers are all traits that will help him achieve better outcomes for everyone involved, not just himself.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! email@example.com
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Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.