The situation is this: My wife and I are married and happy together, with one single child, who is still pretty young (5).

It is a little boy, but the question would work regardless of gender.

We both usually agree on parenting topics, for example what punishment or suspension of privilege is right for specific situations, and what reward or added privilege is right for specific good deeds.

The thing is, I am always the one dealing with the negative stuff. I take away a toy for an hour, deal with time-outs, etc. While we both take equal parts in giving rewards, there is a serious unbalance in who deals with punishments.

My wife's reasoning goes like this: Yes, discipline is very important, but since you'll do it anyway, then I won't risk being the one he gets angry at.

No matter how I try to convince her, it just makes sense to her that if she can avoid looking like the bad guy and the discipline still takes place, then why not do it?

Now if I were to completely stop doing discipline, that means there would be a unknown duration of time during which nobody would be disciplining, and I feel like this would be a problem if our kid was to figure it out during this time, and start misbehaving because he can.

I don't want to play a good cop/bad cop routine with my wife for years. I'm actually scared that, even if my wife agrees with the punishment, if she never gives them herself, the kid will think she disagrees with them and actually start talking more to his mother about problems and life in general by thinking I'm the bad guy or something. Maybe out of some sort of spite.

What should I do to balance things out? If things go on for much longer, will things turn out like I fear, or am I just paranoid?

  • 9
    Good first question. Welcome to the site!
    – Erik
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 12:11
  • 8
    What does she do when you aren't around to be the "enforcer"? Does she just wait for you? On another note, have you tried talking to her about how unfair it feels to you that she's ok with the child being angry at you and never at her?
    – Becuzz
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 12:19
  • 29
    @KaitoKid "Neither of us likes doing X, so I'll just hold out until you deal with it" is a terrible attitude in a partner whether you are talking about parenting or any other responsibility.
    – Myles
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 21:11
  • 6
    @corsiKa It was supposed to be told from a third person perspective (the child has that mother and this father) but I am an actor (father). Sorry if it switched perspective in the middle, I'm not very good at writing in english
    – Kaito Kid
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 0:03
  • 18
    When the kid is a teenager and won't listen to her at all, you're wife will regret this. It will firmly be rooted in his mind that dad is the only one who he has to worry about or listen to.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 12:55

12 Answers 12


I agree that this couple could probably benefit from some couples counseling. Mom is putting an unfair burden on dad and it may take some support from an outside party to help both parents understand how this might impact both their marriage and their child's future feelings about each of the parents.

In the meantime, however, even though you mentioned that both parents are usually together, I would suggest that Dad focus on only providing consequences for issues that he specifically witnesses and considers worthy of correction. It seems likely that the child does certain things that bother Mom and don't bother Dad. In that situation, Dad should never step in in place of Mom.

And whenever possible/practical, Dad can "encourage" this situation by allowing Mom and the son to spend time together where Dad is not also there monitoring the situation--i.e. pick a situation where the child is likely to misbehave and then make sure that Mom and the child are together without the Dad. Maybe it is taking a bath--Dad can be in the other room, doing something else, and explain to Mom that he won't help her "discipline" the child unless it is a matter of safety.

The wife is putting the husband in a situation of her choosing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the husband has to embrace that role. Not that this is a simple task--thus the suggestion to see a therapist to help the couple work through these issues.

  • 2
    "Mom is putting an unfair burden on dad" Counterpoint: Dad is putting an unfair burden on Mom by using negative reinforcement. I read into the question that Mom isn't being somehow "less strict", but rather having to undo the erosion of trust caused by excessive use of isolation punishment ("time out"). Actively encouraging good behavior, leading by example, would be a good start.
    – Rich
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 0:28
  • 15
    I see no evidence of excessive use of isolation punishment, I think you're jumping to conclusions @Rich
    – Vitani
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 14:25
  • 8
    Actually, @Rich, the way I read the OP's question, it sounds like Mom is supportive of negative reinforcement, just not willing to do anything along those lines herself.
    – magerber
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 15:25
  • If there's one thing I know for sure about parenting, it's that inconsistency in how rules are enforced is a sure-fire way to raise a troubled child. As parents you have the responsibility to support and reinforce each others' decisions FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILD. Disagreements about how to handle specific situations are normal and expected, but those disagreements must be worked out between the parents, when the kids are not around. Second-guessing each other, retracting reasonably assigned punishments, and other inconsistent behaviors will confuse the child and lead to misbehavior.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 17:09

You and your wife have a fundamental disagreement here. Not necessarily about parenting.

If you have expressed that this makes you unhappy and your wife is on board with the necessity of disciplining your son and your wife continues to dodge even though you've asked her to stop avoiding this necessary chore, then she's essentially giving your emotional happiness the finger. And that's as large a problem as the discipline itself: you two are your child's model of what a "normal" relationship/marriage is. Blatantly ignoring reasonable requests from your spouse should not be "normal".

Take advice from strangers on the internet only marginally familiar with your situation with as many grains of salt as needed, but it sounds to me from your description that this is more about you than your son. And that's not a bad thing.

Get counseling. Now. Before this issue (and possibly others?) undermine your relationship and parental discipline becomes an afterthought.


It sounds like, to me, that you do not both agree on discipline. Your wife may well say she does, but I'd guess she doesn't, and simply doesn't want to argue with you about it (perhaps, argue again). Actions speak louder than words, after all.

It's certainly important for the two of you to have some consistency, but it's not necessary for you to be identical. When you're apart, it's even less important; the children get used to the individual natures of the parents. You should still be in the same general ballpark, but expecting each of you to make the same decisions is silly.

It's more confusing when you're together, though; that's when you really need to agree, or at least - agree on who's in charge when you're together. My wife and I have this issue from time to time; we resolve it by location - I am the one who does most of the "out of house" trips (to downtown, to the museums, etc.) while she is more often "at home" with the kids, so at home she's primary and out I am. Not to say only one parent does any parenting at a time of course, but I try to mediate my responses based on her expectations at home, and she tries to do the same out.

Ultimately I think you do need to agree on the bigger picture, though, and for that you need to find out what your wife really believes. She may well believe that you're too strict, or that you overreact, or - who knows. You need to get on the same page with her, either by talking about it, or by going to a third party (counselor or similar) who can help. If you do this, though, you have to be open about your feelings but also not push your opinions/feelings onto her: it has to be an open environment where you both can share your opinions and find a common result together.


Many people mistake discipline for only punishment:

If you cannot simply reason it out with your wife, perhaps suggest a parenting class or family counselling. She sounds like she understands that discipline is important. Does she understand that good discipline makes children feel safe, important and loved?

Many people mistake discipline for only punishment.

Google dictionary defines discipline as:


1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

"a lack of proper parental and school discipline"

synonyms: control, training, teaching, instruction, regulation, direction, order, authority, rule, strictness, a firm hand

2. a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education. "sociology is a fairly new discipline"

synonyms: field (of study), branch of knowledge, subject, area; specialty "sociology is a fairly new discipline"

verb 1. train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

"many parents have been afraid to discipline their children"

synonyms: train, drill, teach, school, coach; regiment "she had disciplined herself to ignore the pain"

To me, discipline means: the practice of training people/ourselves to obey rules or a code of behavior, using (self-)regulation and natural consequences to correct disobedience. The earlier you start this, the easier it is later on.

  • Setting clear rules that everyone follows. Stay consistent with those rules. (Within reason. Adults are allowed to drive their car.)
  • Rewarding and recognising good behaviour. (This isn't a toy or candy/food reward. It's praise and hugs.)
  • Not arguing. Listen to the reason the child gives and if they have a point, be flexible. If they don't -- do not argue. ("You're mean!" -- "I am your parent and I sometimes have to make decisions you do not like." Then hush and stick to your decision.)
  • Modelling the behaviours you want and expect.
  • Be respectful. Do not mock your spouse, your child, or anyone else.
  • Showing (modelling) appreciation and gratitude. If you want your child to recognise that the things you provide cost money and need to be taken care of, model it and speak your gratitude for them. Acknowledge your spouse and your child(ren) for their contributions.
  • Helping each other. It isn't your job or her job to make dinner/clean/shop/do homework. It's a contribution to making the family work. Everyone contributes.

I find in our family that discipline is something we all do (even my daughter) and that punishment is extremely rare. We all understand why we do things the way we do them and we all show respect and are truthful with each other. Consequences are natural.

We sit down as a family after we've eaten the dinner we prepared together and done the dishes, to do homework, pay bills, and read or write. We also have what we jokingly call "State of the Union" talks. What is working? Is something needed, not needed?

Our daughter is starting to drive and wants to buy a car. (She does have an inheritance.) We are discussing this issue now. She is compiling information about safety, maintenance, insurance, advanced driving classes. She knows more about buying vs leasing than I do. She is setting up rules that she will agree to follow if we allow her to buy a car. There will be a contract between us. She is discipling herself in order to reach this goal. She will have to get a job and pay for insurance, maintenance and fuel -- will she keep her marks up? She will take this on as a responsibility and the car privilege would be removed if she doesn't keep the contract.

  • 3
    "If you cannot simply reason with your wife" cuts both ways. I'd also suggest "or your wife simply cannot reason with you", but hey. Great answer! Especially your point about being respectful toward the child, seeing the child as a "whole person".
    – Rich
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 0:49
  • @Rich you're right and it is what I meant. I'll edit.
    – WRX
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 15:48
  • I suggest you to make your main point standing out. It's a different viewpoint that should attract more attention.
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 19:13
  • @Ooker I thought I did.. it's in bold. What point do you mean? Thanks for the input.
    – WRX
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 19:26
  • 1
    If I were you, I would make this sentence as header: "Many people mistake discipline for only punishment"
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 19:28

As someone who grew up in a house that had similar upbringing... I can tell you that... from my own personal experience, what you are afraid of can happen. My parents played the good cop/bad cop. My dad usually the one doing the harsher punishments while my mom would do the minor lighter things or the classic "wait till your father gets home". I am not sure if this is a natural nurture trait of mothers or not but I do suggest finding a way to balance it out. While there are other reasons that contribute to it, I am not as close to my dad as I am with my mom. I wouldn't say I am afraid of my dad but when I use to live at home, I would come up with excuses to get out of the house when he would get angry even if it wasn't at me.

Maybe it won't be so bad for you it really just depends on HOW you do punishment. Ultimately though, a fair balance between the 2 with positive aftercare should mitigate most of what you fear.

  • 1
    I suggest you to make your main point standing out. It's a different viewpoint that should attract more attention. It could be possible that the reason the wife does not really incorporate is because deep down in her she disagrees with the method.
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 19:17
  • @Ooker that is true, but for what ever the reason, the bottom line is it is still unbalanced. Whether that means they need to start agreeing on the method or she needs to uphold things she agrees to is irrelevant. The main issue is that they need to find a way to work it out so it is balanced. Also to your point please read my last line, I did mention it comes down to how punishment is done. That is not my main point but speaking about his fears of relationship damage between him and child.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 19:30

I have been in this exact situation, and several of the answers here are very good. For context, I am the father of two, my oldest is in high school and my youngest is in elementary school. My wife never wanted to discipline my son, and while she's better about disciplining my daughter her epiphany came too late in some regards, and so both kids regularly get under her skin. I have business trips about once a month that take me away from them for 2 days at a time, and I almost always get phone calls with her at wits' end and the kids.

First, I disagree with the folks who say your wife isn't actually committed to the discipline because she doesn't want to be the enforcer. From observing my own wife, it's difficult for her intellectual agreement over the need for discipline to overcome the emotional burden of being "hard" on the kids. Especially when my firstborn (new mom stuff) was pre-K. And I'm not talking spankings; she had a hard time even with restrictions or taking stuff away. Fortunately, he was never really hard to handle when young, he became a lot more hard-headed as a teen.

Second, I agree with the folks that say going with your wife to some form of parenting class is a good idea. I swear, if it were possible to make it a law that you had to go to classes and get a "parenting license" like you have to get a driver's license, I'd vote for that one happily. We did end up going to one when my daughter hit 1st grade and was starting to get very contentious. I wish we'd gone earlier, it was a real eye-opener for my wife. She started taking an active hand in discipline, but we discovered that it's a very hard shift to go from being the person the kids can walk all over to being able to hold the stick (so to speak; there's no stick involved in our house!)

In fact, my son still doesn't think he has to listen to her, even after several major disappointments he's had to suffer (things taken away) at her word due to his misbehavior.

So as others have said, get this fixed early. Your wife needs to be respected by your kid(s), and she won't gain that respect unless she's viewed as having authority. She won't be viewed as having that authority unless she can dispense both punishments and rewards as appropriate. If it helps, you can tell her that in my case, despite being the one who's been the enforcer for all their lives, my kids and I have a very good relationship (in my opinion). We still play together, we love each other, we get silly together, all of that. And then if they are misbehaving, I am still willing to enforce whatever disciplinary measure is needed. There are tears or puppy dog eyes sometimes (especially my daughter, she still thinks they work even though they don't), but I usually just smile and tell her to save them for when she wants a car


Personally I find it hard to give out punishment for something I did not witness.

In my case, if I came home and my wife had some punishment waiting that I had to give out... I wouldn't. She was there, so she deals with it. And if she finds it hard, then I'll explain why the toddler does not listen to her while he does listen to me.

She can't be the nice mom and have her kid disciplined by someone else at the same time.


Existing answers cover your relationship with your wife very thoroughly, let me add a little about your relationship with your son.

Erich Fromm has some thoughts on two types of love that children need. What he calls "maternal love" is unconditional love: the child knows that this isn't earned and that even if their actions piss off the whole world, maternal love will never disappear, there is always someone that will be there to help them get out of their problems. What Fromm calls "paternal love" is more built on challenges, expectations, individuality: the child gets self-confidence and reinforcement from knowing that they are being loved because they are a capable, successful person.

A father can love the child with maternal love (sometimes or always) and vice versa. Parents are usually swapping those roles, and a typical single parent has to have some of both types of love in store for the child.

Now the important message that Fromm has is that every child needs to feel both types of love, some of the time, as a strong psychological and developmental need. It may be that your wife is unable or unwilling to provide much of the paternal role. It may be a loss for her, but it does not have to be a loss for your child because he is lucky enough to have two parents with complementary parenting setups.

And is it a loss for you? It does not have to be. You get to choose. You can be "unconditionally loving mother #2" whenever you so choose, and "father with expectations" when you so choose. It makes your own natural role even more important in the development of your child, but I'm sure that your child isn't in a state of constant unavoidable misbehavior and punishment, so you get to enjoy both roles in your life! As much as you choose.

  • 3
    I don't like his use of maternal/paternal as the terminology, but agree with Fromm in principle. There is unconditional parental love, and there's conditional parental love -- still not a perfect term, but a bit better imo. I personally agree that the natural give and take on a day to day basis is the best form of discipline.
    – WRX
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 15:44
  • @WRX I think we've got to attribute the paternal/maternal terminology to his time and the "typical" (or "archaic") roles of father/mother (and their emotions, expectations, etc.)
    – Delioth
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 19:43

There are a number of issues here which you should be aware of, and which may help you better work with your wife when raising your child:

First, children understand from a very early age that each parent does things differently, and will go to the parent that will give them what they want or need, and will even behave very differently based on the parent they are with. This isn't a problem, necessarily, however it does mean that you two are individuals, and will each have a different relationship with your child than the other. This may be beneficial in the long run, as long as you are generally united on the things you value and believe in. Having the same values and beliefs come from two people with two perspectives can cement those values and beliefs more strongly than otherwise.

However, your child will use these differences to manipulate situations. As long as this isn't egregious I wouldn't worry about it, just insofar as you are making sure no abuse is occurring and it isn't unintentionally teaching them selfish patterns that could become stumbling blocks in the future. It's common for humans to seek out the easiest path to a goal, whether in work, school, or at home, so this isn't intrinsically a bad thing, as long as it isn't extreme.

Second, discipline is often one aspect of respect. As long as your wife has some boundaries that are apparent, or if she gains the child's respect for her thoughts and expectations in other ways, then this won't be an issue.

However I've seen all too many families where your dynamic is in play, and the children walk all over the non-disciplining parent. This may not seem problematic if the parent is willing to plead and beg daily for their children to meet expectations, but the real problem occurs later in life when the youth ignores that parent's counsel in important matters, and only listens to the other parent whom they've learned to respect. The non-disciplining parent finds themselves feeling left out, or of little consequence.

Again, discipline is just one aspect of a strong parent-child relationship that can affect this, and isn't the only route to respect. Respect, going both ways, is necessary for a strong relationship, though, and it is hard to develop without having well defined boundaries. It's worth considering how the relationship will develop if your child understands that he never has to listen to what she says unless you are around.

Lastly, this paradigm isn't uncommon, with the mother providing a safe, nurturing environment, and the father providing discipline and expectations. A lot of successful adults with strong relationship with both parents are thriving in the world today, and you wouldn't be the first family to go live this way. It isn't bad parenting, as long as there's a balance and the child's needs are met.

What you may find toxic to your family, however, is the feeling you have that you are doing work that should be a shared responsibility.

You either need to accept the work, and that your wife won't be doing it, or she needs to share that responsibility. If you continue to go along with this feeling of unfairness it will only force a wedge between you and her, and that will affect your child. While it's easy to say that she's the one who should change, it may well be that it's best if you change, and accept this responsibility. I don't know enough about you or your family to recommend that, I simply mention it as something you should seriously consider.


One possible (not great, but possible) approach is to explicitly refuse to administer punishment for offenses that affect your spouse more than yourself.

Let's say, your spouse hates disorder, while you couldn't care if books and toys are strewn all over every surface.

Under typical, functional discipline situation, you both agree that this is punishable, and both punish. However, if the spouse doesn't punish at all, you refuse to punish specifically for making and/or not cleaning the mess like that.

The upsides are that:

  1. Since you still discipline for other things, you don't overall ruin the child with "no discipline" approach

  2. Practically, the child will only feel free to violate the rules that don't bother you.

  3. Hopefully, it will force your spouse to amend their behavior; as they will be bothered by the child violating the rules more than usual.


  1. It does undermine discipline overall, at least a little as you don't discipline for an established rule.

  2. Your spouse may feel resentful. Whether you are willing to take that downside (given that the spouse wronged you much worse) is off topic to parenting issues and has more to do with marriage dynamics between you two.


If she is unwilling to discipline while you are around, chances are she's unwilling to discipline when you're not there. Your child will pick up on this eventually. In the worst case, he may misbehave purposefully knowing that there are no consequences. Your wife will have no authority with him.

If she finally disciplines him in the future after never doing it, I think there's a higher chance that he'll be more resentful towards her at that time. If she is doing it continuously, he will understand that it's part of life and deal with it.

  • The downvote is likely because you are not offering any solutions, but just commenting on the other parent. If you add some ways that you think would help fix it, the downvoter may change his or her mind.
    – WRX
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 15:29

Try to lead by example

You say your son will "start misbehaving because he can". He's 5 years old for goodness sake. At that age, children rarely remember what they did wrong, because they were just doing. He needs to be led by example to learn how to behave. Doling out isolation punishment ("time out", you call it) for something he can hardly remember is generally a bad idea and makes you "the bully". The psychology experienced by children of "angry Dad" is very disconnecting. You seem like you'd like to be more connected, not less...

As to your wife's complicity in his behavior? To be honest, I cannot trust that your assessment is complete, which is absolutely understandable. As I wrote elsewhere, it seems that perhaps she is having to undo your negative reinforcement with her own positive reinforcement. Try to be more positive, lead by example. Things will flow and get better.

If this seems unduly harsh, maybe it is. I was in exactly the same position as you a few years ago. I've been a Dad to a five year old boy, too. I'm passing along what I learnt. I'm sorry to say it'll take you all a couple of years and you'll feel like you're getting nowhere, but stick with it, and eventually he'll get there, you'll be a better Dad for it, and Mom will love you more. #1 Son will have great parents and a solid foundation from which to spring.

Good luck!

  • 2
    Where are you getting the notion that the child is being punished for something he doesn't remember? There's nothing in the original question to suggest such a thing. Also, where is this negative reinforcement you're referencing? There's no mention of such in the question. You seem to be making assumptions without any real evidence.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 17:03
  • @barbecue - It's not an idle assumption. The OP is discussion punishment, not discipline, and children that age do not remember. Therefore the child is being punished for something he doesn't remember. Second point, in the context of bringing up a child, "punishment" is the lay term for negative reinforcement. The OP is discussing "punishment", therefore is discussing negative reinforcement.
    – Rich
    Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 18:28
  • Punishment and negative reinforcement are not the same thing. Lay people do not use punishment to mean negative reinforcement, they use punishment to mean punishment. You're also assuming there is some long delay between when the child misbehaves and when the punishment is delivered, which is not something ever stated in the OP. Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about what the poster MIGHT have done is not helpful. It's also not true that children that age are incapable of remembering.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 21:16

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