Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.

"I have an agenda about the way I want things when I come home at night," Cal boldly stated during a recent couple's counseling session. "I don't think I'm asking too much for the kids to be responsible."

"Exactly," his wife Sarah chimed in. "When Dad walks in the door, the kids run for cover. It drives me nuts."

Cal and Sarah had been coming to counseling for several weeks because of parenting issues impacting their marriage.

"What do you mean?" I asked, looking at Sarah.

"They're afraid of him," she answered. "The kids know Dad has his ideas about where their toys should be, the way their room should be kept, where their bikes should be in the garage, the whole works. It's awful. He runs our family like a boot camp."

Cal stared icily at Sarah.

Sarah and Cal had a blended family, so she was even more concerned about her oldest son from a previous marriage who seemed to take the brunt of her husband's moods.

"If he's had a tough day, my son really gets it."

Defending his actions, Cal offered his rendition of events.

"He's sixteen and there's no reason for his bike to be left in the middle of the yard, or for his skateboard to be left in the driveway."

"But," Sarah countered, "you don't leave them any room to be kids. This is the biggest thing we fight about. Dad's agenda!"

I'd heard their story many times before with blended and bio-families. Fathers who have rigid ideas of the way they think things should be, and the stress it causes families. Rigid expectations, harsh consequences and angry comments make for a tense family environment, often creating some measure of conformity, but at a huge expense. Marriages can be severely impacted by differences in parenting styles, especially when one runs the family in an overly authoritarian manner.

Here is an email from a mother with the same experience.

Dear Dr. David. I'm not sure where to begin. My husband was raised in a military home and runs our house the same way. He expects our kids to tow the line, and I watch them cringe in fear when he drives in the driveway at night. Even though he has a huge heart, and our kids love him, they also fear him. I tell my husband that his actions are pushing his kids away, and he gives me a bunch of excuses. He thinks I'm too lenient with them, and I think he's way too strict. What can I do to help my husband see that running the family with an iron fist is not going to help our kids, but will hurt them?

First, restrictive, authoritarian parenting has been shown to create conformity in children, but restricts creativity. Children of harsh parenting will often tow the line, but later rebel. Authoritarian parenting often creates resentment and rebellion. Even if they do not rebel, their creative expression is limited. The other parent often feels a need to compensate against this harsh approach to parenting. This style of parenting has never been recommended.

Second, punitive fathers are often replicating what they've learned. It is common for authoritarian fathers to say, "It didn't hurt me, so it won't hurt them." Sadly, this is rarely true. It did hurt them, though they may not be in touch with their pain. These fathers need help to understand the impact of their parents' parenting on their lives.

Third, punitive fathers need to understand there are other, more effective ways to discipline and parent children. Programs such as Parenting With Love and Logic are specially designed to afford children deserved autonomy while also holding them accountable for being responsible. Parents trained in Love and Logic know they can allow children to make mistakes, while also helping them see and feel the impact of those mistakes. Harsh discipline is never needed.

Fourth, don't try to be identical parents. While one parent may be a bit too lenient, and one a bit too harsh, if they meld their styles together they can find a balanced approach to parenting that greatly benefits the children. Each parent can learn from the other and your goal should be to complement each other's style of parenting.

Finally, it's never too late to change your parenting strategies. Your children didn't come with a training manual, so learning comes from trial and error. Children are amazingly resilient, so it's never too late to try new tools.

I'd love to hear stories about your parenting approaches and their impact on your children. How have you done at cooperative parenting?

October 6, 2009 

Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.