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United We Stand

When our children transgress, they can always count on spirited representation by counsel. But there's no telling whether it will be by defense attorney Daddy or Mommy. It depends partly on the nature of the crime  -- and partly on which parent started the proceedings.

Exhibit A: Our 4-year-old daughter, Karen, known locally as She Who Must Be Obeyed, would be high on the list of any executive recruiter charged with locating a cute little despot. A few nights ago my husband, Michael, and I were reviewing the events of the day. "Karen's so controlling," he said. "When I gave her the blue cup, she said she wanted the pink one. And then when I gave her the pink cup, she said she wanted ice. And you heard her screaming that she wanted you to give her a bath when I said I was going to."

"Well, yes," I conceded, "she can be manipulative. But she gets that way when she's overtired. She hasn't slept well this week because of her allergies." (Note, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my cunning use of the eczema defense.)

Why did I defend my daughter in the face of incontrovertible evidence? I suspect it has to do with Karen being, as I was, the baby of the family, so I feel a sense of solidarity. More important, though, when Michael describes Karen as controlling  -- I've known since our dating days just how intensely he feels about that trait  -- I find myself monitoring my own behavior. In defending my daughter, I'm also defending myself.

Not that Michael isn't also prey to questionable motives. Last month when our 6-year-old son, Matthew, was playing at his friend Jack's, Jack  -- against the express directive of his caregiver  -- inveigled Matt into a game of living room hockey.

Now, I wasn't in the stands, so I can't tell you whose stick hit the shelf, knocking an antique cup and saucer to the floor. But Jack's mother sent her junior Gretzky to the penalty box. When I heard of the incident, I demanded that Matt write a note of apology. "It was Jack's idea. He made me do it," wrote my son, who showed not an iota of remorse. I insisted on a rewrite.

My husband, aggravatingly unruffled about the whole thing, defended Matt's hastily and carelessly scribbled letter, coming off rather like Mr. Rogers  -- minus the cardigan. "It's tough, isn't it, when a friend wants you to do something you shouldn't?" he asked Matt gently. True enough. But I saw that my husband was delighted that his not-interested-in-sports son had, at long last, gotten into a scrape involving guy equipment. (This isn't to suggest that my husband and I always defend along gender lines. Many times I have championed Matthew's cause, and Michael has stood up for Karen.)

Child-rearing experts talk about the importance of parents presenting a united front to minimize opportunities for the kids to play one progenitor against the other. My husband and I stand united on such delinquencies as hitting, biting, lying, and going into the street without adult supervision. In those cases, the combined legal skills of Darrow, Dershowitz, and the Dream Team couldn't save Matt and Karen from doing time (outs) for the crime.

We're also united in the hope that our children will learn from their misdeeds. Certainly, Michael and I learn about each other  -- and ourselves  -- from our sometimes different reactions to our kids' mischief. I've discovered that I become more displeased than is necessary when I observe in Matt and Karen things I'm none too crazy about in their daddy.

I suspect that the same is true for my husband. He'd be a far happier man if I stopped being such a finicky eater, and he's ready to throw the book when either of our children shows signs of having picked up on my pickiness. Though reflexively, I want to take on the defense attorney role  -- I mean, is Karen's refusal to eat bread crusts a capital offense?  -- I know this is a hot button for Michael. Consequently, I try to encourage the children to move outside their four basic food groups: pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, and yogurt.

Although there are times when I wish my husband shared my ire, our divergent views make for a system of checks and balances. Michael has all the understanding of a Navy Seal when Matt and Karen stretch the boundaries of bedtime; I'm less apt to get annoyed when 8 PM morphs into 8:23. But when the children try to push the envelope  -- and my goodwill  -- toward 9, I'm relieved that Michael is willing to step in and play the heavy.

In some areas, I'm the Vesuvian one; I'm more likely to blow at bathtub water displacement or grape juice on the living room rug. Michael, meanwhile, calmly urges the kids to be more careful next time and goes for the mop or the spot remover.

At those times I'm reminded that the slack my husband cuts for our kids is exactly the slack he cuts for me. He is far more tolerant of my faults  -- food foolishness notwithstanding  -- than I am of his. Which helps me remember that in the pursuit of justice, family justice included, one should never lose sight of mercy.

Joanne Kaufman writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.