Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Alarm bells clang as stepfather walks abusive line
Lost in Translation!: My son is from my previous marriage, and my current husband and I have been married one year. My husband is quick to spank, where that is one of my last resorts. The other night at dinner my son and I started dancing to this funny tune we heard. My husband got after my son and said, "We don't dance at the table."
Another issue is dinner. My son didn't like what I made, and my husband said he needed to eat it or he'd have it for lunch and so forth until he ate it all. I say he should just go to bed without finishing his dinner and we start over tomorrow with new food. My husband said, "No, you made good food and he should eat it."
How do I communicate to him that we need to find a happy medium?
Carolyn: Yikes. I'm not going to type fairy dust at you — the quickness to spank and the punitive nature of the other two examples you gave suggest your husband has abuser potential. At best, he has the potential to make your boy miserable for no purpose other than to prove he's boss and your son is powerless.
That "best case" can lead your son to puzzle, years into adulthood, about why his mother didn't protect him when he was at his most vulnerable.
Please urge your husband to join you at parenting classes. By shifting authority to a third party, you create an opportunity for your husband to learn without the feeling of being scolded. It sounds as if his ego is heavily invested in his being right about things, suggesting he'll stick to a bad method just to prove to you that his methods aren't bad.
This of course also suggests your husband won't agree to classes, but he's hitting your kid — you insist.
Your top priority is to protect your son. If your husband is not receptive to getting trained to handle his stepfather gig, then he doesn't deserve the honor. Ultimately, you decide what kind of home is healthiest for you and your son.
About that dancing incident. Your husband's correction sent your son a confusing and inconsistent message: I did what Mommy said was okay, and then Daddy punished me. That teaches a kid to walk on eggshells, when what you want to teach is trust: You want him to trust his own ability to judge when something is okay to do and when it isn't.
The dance incident teaches him that boundaries are arbitrary and he can get smacked (figuratively or literally) when all the signals say he's okay. That's an early step toward an insecure, self-doubting kid.
Just hoping to spell out how serious this is.
Anonymous: For Lost In Translation: I don't want to be an alarmist, but I work for a nonprofit that deals with child abuse, and the most common abuser of a child is a male in the household who is not the child's biological father.
Carolyn: With abusive tendencies, it's better to be over-alarmed than under-. As I said, I think there's emotional damage already happening, and so it's already a problem that the mother has to face immediately and forcefully. Statistical urgency welcome.