Q. My 15-year-old just told me about an overnight camping trip he’s planned with two friends, and when I balked, he mentioned that his dad already said it is OK. My husband and I often are not on the same page with our parental decision-making, and I think our teen uses that to his advantage — he’ll go to the parent he thinks will give him the answer he wants to hear. How do we reel this in?
JEFF: First off, I want to commend you and your husband for raising a young man who understands how business gets done. He’ll go far in life — well, at least to a rustic campground. And second: Although I’m not sure if empathy will make you feel better, I want to acknowledge that I might very well approve an overnight while my wife likely would not. (Our 13-year-old is reading this and plotting his near future.)
I run all such requests by my wife first, though. I’m a go-with-the-flow type, while Sarah tends to plan out every breath. Neither approach is without shortcomings, but collaboration goes a long way. So rather than just rubber-stamping decisions, I prefer to let my wife in on why I feel the way I do and also offer her my ear for any concerns and, ultimately, conditions. The result is that our kids often hear approval that doesn’t end with just a “Yes.”
KATHY: I’m a bit of a catastrophizer (is that a word? it should be!) so I relate to the mom’s misgivings. “Camping trip” sounds like a euphemism for “recreational drug use/girls in the tent trip.” But I also always try to check with my husband, partly because he’s often wiser, and partly because he was once a 15-year-old boy, and has better access to my son’s perspective.
We have a running joke in our house: When either of our kids makes a significant request to either of us parents, the asker predictably heaves a sigh, and then blurts, “I know, I know, you have to check with Dad/Mom, but could you do it fast?”
John and I are like some federal bureaucracy, at times, but we’ve learned that slower, bilateral discussion is a lot better for our marriage than quicker, unilateral decisions. After all, the kids will be gone someday, but we’ll still be here.
JEFF: Yeah, and then you guys will be free to take some of those wild camping trips you’ve been envisioning.
Oh, by the way, I need to return to that camping decision for a moment. My wife wants it known that she’d relent to me being Cool Dad and granting permission for a teen overnight only because she’s sure that Sneaky Dad couldn’t resist the urge to set up a tent nearby, just to keep tabs. I vehemently deny that. I would drive by the campground a time or two, though.
As for bilateral decision making, count me in. That’s the smooth, sustainable way to go. But I’m not averse to having the children — one a teen, the other fast approaching — see Mom and Dad navigate our way along Decision Drive, potholes and all. By pulling back the curtain and revealing that we don’t necessarily see things from the same angle but are always open to each other’s perspective, my wife and I teach our kids lessons about openness, compromise, gray area vs. black-and-white, and — here’s a biggie — the value of persuasion as opposed to whining and begging.
K ATHY: I take your last point to heart, Jeff: It’s not just about parenting together, moment to moment, it’s about teaching our kids what a communicative marriage looks like. They need to internalize that good decisions don’t just fall from the sky. To stick with a camping metaphor, it’s much s’more complicated than that.
And while John and I often have hard discussions out of earshot, we also let the kids overhear our back-and-forth. That way, they witness each spouse working hard to honor the other’s perspective, to keep the tone respectful, and to check our body language: John Gottman, the eminent marriage researcher, has about a 90 percent success rate at predicting which couples will divorce. One top indicator? If either partner rolls their eyes at the other. That’s a clear sign of disrespect in the relationship.
So I say to the questioner: Ask your husband to keep an eye on having a dialogue before any big or biggish decision. This will benefit both your marriage and your family — because, right now, you all share the same tent.