“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly advice column in which Fatherly’s Parenting Editor Patrick Coleman provides frank answers to reader questions. Want evidence-based answers and some common sense morality? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We got you. Want a justification for some parenting decision you already made? Ask someone else. Patrick is busy.
I’m a divorced Dad with a 6-year-old son. Both my wife and I have remarried. My ex and I have communicated and co-parented pretty well over the last couple of years, even though we had a rocky start after the divorce. We have a custody agreement that works for both of us and have equal time with our son. That’s not the problem. The problem is her new husband.
The other day, my son told me that he got in trouble at his mom’s house and that his step-father spanked him. He said it really hurt and I could see he was upset. I tried to get more information about what happened and he said that he was playing with his step-father’s phone without permission and accidentally dropped it. The screen cracked and his step-dad got mad and spanked him with a belt. I looked for marks during bathtime, but there was nothing there. This is the third time my son has told me he was spanked. I tried to text my ex to tell her to knock it off. Now I’m so pissed I just want to go beat the shit out of the guy.
How do I handle this without going to jail?
Take a deep breath and know this right up front: When it comes to discipline, you are right and your kid’s step-dad is wrong. That isn’t supposition or conjecture; that’s fact. Very good longitudinal research has shown that corporal punishment leads to poor outcomes for children. In fact, spanking as a discipline tactic is linked to higher rates of depression, suicide and drug abuse in adults. Still, while you’re right to feel pissed, your instinct to go beat the crap out of the guy is wildly misguided (it seems like you know that) so you’re going to have to do something way harder.
Don’t. I’m not saying you should ignore the deep evolutionary urge to beat the piss out of a dude who hurt your kid. I’m saying that violence is a crummy communication tool. You need to stand down and then, when you’re a bit calmer, stand up for your kid by doing two things.
Thing One: Be great to your kid. Show love. Don’t spank him. Be solid. Be consistent. Whatever else happens, you owe the kid some normalcy. Deliver it.
Thing Two: Talk to his mother. And let’s be clear, texting isn’t talking. Texts are for arranging pick up and drop off times. A text is not up to the challenge of expressing the urgency you feel about her husband hitting your kid. At the very least this is an issue to be discussed in a phone call. It would be far better to have the conversation face-to-face if at all possible. It sounds like you two have co-parented well in the past. You need to get back to that place.
I assume that sometime in the future you’ll be handing off your son. That’s your moment. You can have the conversation on the porch or in your living room. But you have to talk. It’s the only way to protect your kid. It’s the urgent thing.
And there are ways to be polite (despite the urge to get angry). Point out that your ex is on the verge of creating a good parent, bad parent dynamic with your son. She might wind up driving him away. That has the rare virtue of being both true and motivating. You should also note that you’re willing to make compromises as long as the discipline plan in place is consistent between both homes. And then just don’t compromise on corporal punishment. This may mean that you will need to adhere to the discipline plan too, which is only fair. Entertain this idea. Whatever it takes to stay the hand.
But let’s say you reach out and your ex is stonewalling you. First, make sure you document everything (in case this becomes a legal issue) and then see if you can entice her with having into a conversation mediated by a third party. There are plenty of mediation services out there that can help.
In the end, should you and your ex come to a decision on discipline, make sure you keep checking in with your son. If your son’s stepfather continues spanking and/or using a belt, it will be time to call in a family lawyer and renegotiate your custody agreement. That’s the last resort. But the option is there. And your ex-wife probably knows that too.
I’m a father-of-two. They are four and a year-and-half old. My question is how do you deal with anger? My dad had a quick temper and I find that I do too. And it’s something that happens quickly, It flares, and when things are over it’s really easy for me to go back and recognize it and say “Gosh, you know, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten upset about X Y or Z.” But I really have a hard time managing it at the moment. What are your thoughts and what can you tell me?
I wish I could tell you that there was one simple trick to stop your anger from flaring immediately — a breathing technique or a mantra. There simply isn’t. In fact, the only short solution is briefly removing yourself from the situation when you feel hot. The stakes are rarely so high that you need to Hulk. In a vast majority of the circumstances, you can step away. The spilled milk may continue to pool. Fine. The kids may continue to cry and scream. Whatever. At least you’re not adding your fury to the madness. And sometimes stepping back is all the opportunity your brain needs to remember rationality.
That said, stepping away for a ten count isn’t always an option. Sometimes shit needs to get done and kids need to be pulled out of traffic. Also, you want a long term solution. There’s a good way to get there. Much of our anger as parents is related to power struggles. We get pissed because our expectations are not being met. We can start to fix that by understanding and accepting that some of the shit we require of children is completely arbitrary, unnecessary and maybe even unreasonable. Internalize that and you’ll calm down a bit.
Still, I mean it when I say there isn’t a magic mantra. There isn’t. But there is a phrase that works if you practice it enough: “It’s okay.” If that’s not your style, riff on it. The point is to acknowledge, even out loud, that what’s setting you off is not worth your anger. Some things don’t have to happen right at this moment, or in the specific way you need them to, or at all. The most important idea here is “practice.” You are trying to rewire your brain. And luckily brains can be rewired.
You also need a consistent and precise plan to deal with problem behavior. Essentially you’re creating a discipline plan. Pick one that is comfortable for your partner and your children and then stick with it. This isn’t for your kid as much as it is for you. You are building a systematic, replicable response to behavior that helps you keep control. Will it become tedious sometimes? Yep. Will it be required forever? Probably not.
These are all practical steps for helping you change your behavior. But it doesn’t address the root cause. And that’s our final step, Cisco. You need to make sure you are taking care of yourself. Do you need to address work-life balance? Do that. Do you need to get out and play with the kids for a half hour? Do that. Do you need to take a walk or eat better? Do that. And while you’re looking at yourself, maybe find someone else who can help you look. Therapy is a good tool, man. You’re not weak for talking about. And talking will help you cool down.