Raising Richmond: Oh no I didn’t!

I swore I never would. But after a day of obstinate, defiant behavior, my son broke me and I said it. “Do I need to call your father?” Duhn duhn DUHHHHHHHHHHHN.

I swore I’d never do it.

No matter how angry I got, no matter how impossible the situation felt, it was never, EVER going to happen.

(No, not that. I promise you, I didn’t lay a finger on him. Just stay with me here.)

But after a day of obstinate, defiant, downright batshit crazy behavior, JR–my almost-four-year-old son—broke me.

As the words shot out of my mouth, “PARENTING: FAIL” echoed in my head. To my core. Throughout my very being.

Do I need to call your father?

I realize that question is posed to misbehaving children in many households across the world every single day. I also realize that for some families, replacing “father” with “mother” proves to be just as—if not more—effective.1 I’m not passing judgment on those who use this technique in their “Come to Jesus” efforts with their children because 1) hello, I just did it myself; 2) there are way worse things you could be saying and doing to your kids, discipline-wise.

And I get where the impulse comes from—I really do. First of all, it implies that you have back up and that you and your partner are a united front. Second, it allows us to preemptively tag out2 of a parent-child conflict that, for whatever reason, has hit a wall.

Neither of these is necessarily bad. It’s good to show your kids that their parents are on the same page. It’s also good to have the trust and freedom to pass the parenting baton when needed. But it’s all in how you go about it. As in: do you tag out for a breather or check out on a serious situation?

Take a minute and really think about what we’re doing when we ask our kids that same question I asked JR—or when we toss out some variation of it in one of those moments of frustration that only our sweet, little poppets can inspire…

Your father is going to hear about this.
Wait until your mother gets home.
If you don’t stop it, Dad’s going to come in here and…

The decision to “invoke” the other parent in this way, while perhaps effective in the moment, could potentially bite you in the ass down the road. Here’s why (in my humble opinion):

It sends the wrong message.

When I asked my son The Question, I felt like I should’ve followed it up with some sort of physical representation of my parental power3 on a solid gold platter, surrendered to him on bended knee. And one for my husband, too.

Making a statement like those I listed above suggests to your kids that you are the secondary, lesser parent—at least when it comes to discipline. Play that card enough and they’ll start to believe it.

I realize I’m coming off as a bit dramatic here, but for me it’s that serious. I am my son’s primary caregiver by a pretty significant margin;4 he spends more time with me than with anyone else on this planet. I can’t imagine what our days would be like if he thought of his Dad as the only one who means business around here.

It’s not fair to your partner.

I have no problem being a hard ass or playing bad cop to anyone’s good cop…but I’d never want to be looked at as the bad guy—especially by my kid.

But in that moment, I didn’t hesitate to let my son believe that about his Dad.

By saying, “Do I need to call your father?” in response to behavior that I had labeled as “unacceptable” for JR, I set up my husband as a consequence. I made him a threat. A punishment, even! For bad behavior that he wasn’t even there to witness!

Obviously, part of being a parent involves laying down the law when the situation calls for it. But I think we owe it to our husbands, wives, co-parents, what-have-yous to let them determine what that looks like for them within the context of their relationship with their children. Forcing someone into the role of The Enforcer doesn’t allow the freedom to do that.

And it’s just not fair.

It’s counter-productive.

If you want to create a united front, you need to make sure your ally knows what the hell is going on. Blindsiding Dad as soon as he walks in the door, or surprising Mom with a phone call in the heat of the moment (complete with a shrieking child in the background) probably isn’t allowing your partner to parent as well as he or she could. It’s my experience that you just end up with lots of yelling, lots of tears, and no real resolution—at least not one that affects a lasting change in behavior.

The way I see it, if a situation warrants involvement from both parents, there’s nothing wrong with saying to your child in that moment, “Your behavior is unacceptable. I am going to talk this over with your father. We will decide what needs to happen next.”5

Then instead of throwing the misbehaving child at the head of the unsuspecting parent and running for the hills,6 take the time to fill your partner in on what’s going on so he or she is working with all the facts. Process the situation together.

When you do this—and when your child knows you do this—you make it clear that yours is not an “every man for himself” household. Both parents know what’s up and both parents call the shots.7

That’s a united front. And that’s the message you want to send to your kids.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Totally the case in my house growing up. 
  2. For what it’s worth, I fully support tagging out; every mother or father should be able to do it when frustration levels have reached a boiling point. 
  3. Now accepting suggestions for appropriate symbols of parental power. I was thinking a fist forged out of iron. Lovingly forged, of course. 
  4. I don’t mean that as a dig against my husband. He’s a fantastic father who just happens work very, very hard and sometimes very long hours. 
  5. I find it very effective to not use contractions when disciplining my child. 
  6. Ohhhhh, but we SO want to, don’t we? 
  7. Please don’t assume my enthusiasm for this approach implies mastery of it. It’s a goal for our family but not always the reality. 


Photo by Jenny Downing

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I understand your reasons for not wanting to do it, but I’ve found that if your child is worried about how he or she is viewed/considered by others, then you can definitely use that as a way to encourage your kids toward best behaviors. Once, I asked one of mine, “What would your grandmother think about that?” I didn’t even say I was going to tell her, but the mere thought was enough to start the waterworks.

    It also helps kids to remember that there are people out there who’ve got their best interests at heart, and who won’t let them get by with poor behavior. I once got dinged in middle school by someone, and I have no idea who, who saw me make a rude gesture and passed word on to my parents. I didn’t even get grounded, but my mom telling me that “someone” (an adult) saw me do that and was disappointed in me was about as bad a feeling as I’d ever had.

  2. Jennifer C. on said:

    I’ve sort of opted out of that phrase as a single parent, but I think Jeb has a point about the village. I try to keep my ex-husband in the loop with behavior, both positive and negative. My parents have spent a lot of time (second only to my ex and me) with our boys, and I’ve done the same thing as Jeb. I don’t remember my dad being invoked when I was a kid, but I knew he was going to hear about it just the same. You can present a united front without making the other parent the bad guy.

  3. Eric Drumheller on said:

    From Dec 1 – Dec 24. I use “Santa’s Watching you”. After that I’m just praying.

  4. Valerie Catrow on said:

    I think it’s great for kids to know that they have a tribe of people watching out for them and loving them. I just don’t want to set my husband (or anyone) up as a person for my kid to be afraid of. Accountable to? Yes. Afraid of? No. I think it’s all in how you phrase it.

  5. I like this. Thanks, Val.

  6. Valerie, the other side of that is that either/both parents can be not only responsible for correction of poor behavior but also granting redemption. There have been a couple of times lately when, after I get home from work, my middle son has volunteered to me that he’d had an accident or done something wrong. He’s not being compelled to tell me by anyone else, but I think he’s taking a chance at it because he wants to hear me tell him it’s OK, that he can do better or try harder, and that it’s reaffirming that I’m there to support him.

    I don’t think JR is *ever* going to be *afraid* of you or Ross, so I wouldn’t even worry about that part. But I think you’ll be OK occasionally invoking his daddy’s name when you need a little extra oomph to get through to him. :-)

  7. Jeb, I think the fact that your son looks to you for guidance when he knows he’s made a mistake shows the importance of letting our kids know that we discipline them not to be “the boss” or “be right”, but to help them make the correct choices. I’m glad you have that relationship with your kids. I hope we’re building something similar with JR.

  8. Jessica on said:

    Another great article Val! You’re a great motivator to put a new spin on that age old phrase (or threat LOL). Definitely guilty a time or two here.

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