Our son, who’s 11, has been very rude to his father for the last few weeks and eventually, in a fit of temper, his father said that, as a punishment, we won’t be going to Austria for Christmas. My son is so disappointed, and so am I – we all look forward to Christmases there on my mother’s farm. The grandparents are devastated. How can I persuade my husband that this punishment affects all of us, and that he should drop it? He hates to lose face.
Yours sincerely, Annaliese
It would be useful, I think, to regard this situation like a knot in a piece of rope. The more you protest that the punishment’s unfair, and that the whole family will lose out and it’s like using sledgehammer to crack a nut and so on, the more your husband will justify his ludicrous actions and pull harder and harder in his own direction. The knot will become more and more difficult to unpick until finally, even if deep down he regrets his rash pronouncement, he won’t even be able to untie it himself.
What you must do, Annaliese, is to try to loosen the strings. Go along with him. And then start to suggest other ways that your husband can feel he’s exerted his authority. I’d first say how you understand his reaction and that, in his situation, you’d have been tempted to behave in the same way. (No matter that of course you wouldn’t have rushed headlong into a stupid decision like this – but by admitting you might have behaved like this, you make him feel part of the human race, rather than some heavy-handed monster.) Then point out that the problem is that he’s punishing the whole family – you, your son, and the grandparents. He will immediately say that it’s your son’s fault, but you can rightly point out that had your son known that this was the punishment he risked, he probably wouldn’t have been so rude.
Then start outlining a way he can wriggle out of this and still maintain his authority and creditability in future. Say that it’s only a really big man who can admit his mistakes, that to go back on his heavy-handed pronouncement would be a sign of strength, not weakness, that only strong men can change their minds. Remind him that he’ll be setting his son a good example if he shows him that sometimes people can backtrack without losing face. And at the same time, tell your son that he must make an abject apology to his father, preferably written and tear-stained.
What about suggesting some other punishment that your son could do, something that, instead of harming the whole family, would actually help? Could he do the cooking and washing up for a month? Could he take the dog for a walk twice a day – if you have a dog, that is? Think of something that would be really useful and would also please his father.
True, it’ll be difficult to achieve all this. Getting a result in the face of such intransigence requires great compassion, a certain manipulativeness and a lot of skill. And you may feel that if you can manoeuvre a satisfactory result out of this unpleasant situation your husband has created, and then you deserve to take over Tony Blair’s job in the Middle East. But I think it’s possible. Good luck.
Make him work for it
Allow the boy a get-out clause. Suggest that if he works off his bad behaviour by doing a reasonable number of extra chores you might change your mind. Don’t be too exacting. Teenagers go through bad patches as they are maturing. But for discipline’s sake, keep him sweating for a bit.
Help him save face
It is important that neither you nor your husband feels undermined by each other in front of your son, and equally important that your son sees that discipline is taken seriously by both of you.
Is there a suitable punishment that you and your husband can devise together that will match the Christmas cancellation in terms of severity and the effect it will have on your son? If you can come up with something, you can all sit down together and your husband can explain that, while, on reflection he is not prepared to punish the whole family for your son’s rudeness, he will instigate a different punishment instead.
Your husband will then look reasonable as well as still firm, you will present a united front to your son, there will be a clear link from his rudeness to a punishment that will affect only him, and you won’t have to miss seeing your family. .
You all need a change
I think there may be two problems here: your husband does not want to go to Austria for Christmas and your son being rude.
If your husband really wanted to go to Austria he would not punish himself like this. Perhaps he is fed up with going every year. Perhaps he is fed up with seeing his in-laws every Christmas. You need to have an open discussion and see if it would be good for you all to have a change this Christmas and go to Austria in the spring or some other time.
As far as your son is concerned, while unpleasant and difficult to handle, being rude to his parents at the age of 11 is all part of flexing his wings. He needs to understand that politeness is one of the most important attributes to getting along in life, particularly in relation to his mum and dad. Punishing the whole family is too big a responsibility for him, but maybe if you do give this Christmas a rest, go to Austria at a different time of year, and then go back next Christmas, he will have perked everyone up with this upset.
I suggest strongly that you try to resolve the issue with your husband before you tackle the rudeness with your son.
NEXT WEEK’S DILEMMA
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