There’s nothing unusual about getting a text from my sons when they’re at their dad’s. But sometimes I’ll get a message that highlights the very different parenting styles between me and my ex-husband: a question about a conflict with a friend. A hygiene or health question. A question about a social or political issue. Or they just need to talk.
The kids and I regularly talk about these things when we’re together, but it’s sad to me that they ask me these questions even when they are with their father. Why don’t they ask him?
Well, they’ve told me why they don’t. According to my kids, there are certain subjects they simply don’t broach with their father. They tell me I’m easier to talk to about “certain things.” They say they know I’ll listen to them and that I won’t criticize, lecture, or bullshit them.
My ex has always been an authoritarian type of parent. He’s quick to criticize and judge, and he follows rigid rules and social norms and thinks the kids should do the same. He expects the kids to do whatever he says without question. He thinks his way is the only way (or the best way) and demands obedience. When the boys ask “why” about any of his rules or expectations, he’ll respond, “that’s just how it is” or “because I’m the parent and I say so.” He’s unwilling to question why a rule is what it is, so he doesn’t understand why the boys would question.
Back when we were still married, we used to argue about his overuse of the phrase “because I said so.” I’d tell him the boys deserve to have reasons for why we have the rules we do. He’d say they should obey because he was their father and they should respect him. I’d say respect is earned, not coerced. And ‘round and ‘round we’d go.
In terms of parenting, I’m what most people would call authoritative. I’m definitely not permissive; my boys don’t “get away” with stuff. They very rarely talk back or disrespect me, because they know there would be consequences for that (typically it means they’d lose gaming time, but sometimes it means they get an extra gross chore added to their regular list).
But we are open with each other. I have rules and expectations, but I explain to the boys why those rules exist. They happily do what they’re supposed to because they know the reasons behind the rules.
But I’m lenient in some ways. For example, my boys are allowed to cuss around me. I’ve made it clear that this is a rule I have in my house that lots of other parents don’t have. The rule is that as long as curse words aren’t used to harm or belittle another person, I really don’t care if they cuss. In return, they understand that my expectation is that they don’t abuse this privilege by cursing at school in front of teachers or in other places where it would be considered inappropriate. I’ve always told them that the moment they get in trouble for dropping an F-bomb at school, even “by accident,” my leniency about cursing at home will be over. My older son is 16 and freely drops “damns” and “shits” in my presence, and occasionally an F-bomb. My younger son, who is 12, has chosen not to curse (in front of me, anyway), though recently I heard him say “damn” when he got frustrated about something.
We talk about sex, reproductive function, the social implications and repercussions of being sexually active, and how those repercussions differ for boys and girls. We talk about smoking, drinking, drugs, politics, and social justice issues. No subject is off-limits. If they ask, I will answer as honestly as I can.
They tell me it’s not like that with their dad. I never trash-talk their dad in front of them, but a couple of times when they’ve been at their dad’s and they’ve called or texted to ask me something, I’ve asked why they don’t just ask him. They say that sometimes it’s just easier to ask me because I will just answer without giving them a big lecture. They said they also sometimes think their dad isn’t giving them the whole truth.
I haven’t told them this, but they’re right. My ex has lied to the boys about things when they’ve asked him. They told me they once asked him about smoking cigarettes, and he responded that he’s never smoked — he said he tried one once and didn’t like it. The truth is, in our early twenties I noticed my ex was developing a smoking habit and I cut off all cigarette purchases before the habit became too hard to break. He was always the one asking if we should buy a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t tell the boys this though, because it’s not my place to label their dad a liar. And I know plenty of parents choose not to be honest when their kids ask about their wild pasts.
My ex presents himself to the kids as a person who has never made a bad decision. He acts like he’s always made the right choice in every situation. He tries to present a “wise” front. So it’s no surprise that they come to me, since I treat them like autonomous human beings whose thoughts and opinions matter.
I respond to their questions as honestly as I can, taking their ages into account. They’re getting older, so I am willing to offer more detail than when they were younger. Especially for my 16-year-old, who is about to get his driver’s license, and before we know it he’ll be off to college — I feel like he deserves to know the truth. And not just know the truth, but also be able to trust that when he asks me something, I’ll trust in him to be mature enough to handle a real answer.
This seems obvious to me. Talk to your kids like they’re human beings too, and they’ll come to you when they need to talk. I wish my ex would figure this out, because all he’s doing with his authoritarianism, lecturing, and lies is pushing his sons away.