Ours looks like the perfect family, but it is flawed.

Both my husband and I are eldest children and products of maternally headed homes, which were each "broken" several times.

We have been married 23 years. During much of that time we worked side by side to establish ourselves, making great achievements professionally and are now firmly established socially and financially. Our daughter, 13, and our son, 16, are very nice -- not perfect -- children. The whole family is interested in cultural events and the library is a favorite place for us to go but the children don't live up to their potential in a large, academically demanding school system.

According to tests, our son is very gifted, but his report cards are "average" and then only after we have been warned of possible D's or F's. Our daughter, a "popularity queen" in her junior high, gives academics a low priority.

My husband and I value education, we read a lot and I now go to college part-time, solely for the joy of learning, but neither my husband nor I have more than a high school education.

I'm afraid my son may feel that he, too, can buck the odds and succeed in life unconventionally.

My husband constantly harangues me to motivate and discipline the children. He doesn't direct them; he directs me to direct them, even when they're nearby.

We agreed that I would have most of the responsibility for running the household and rearing the children after he started a new, time-consuming career, since I work only part-time from our home. But this nagging is nothing new.

He seems to enjoy it if I point out his flaws when he harangues me, and says he wants "to be corrected" anytime. This sounds like a game of emotional S-M to me.

The situation is bad for me, worse for the children.

I am sure he loves us, but I'm afraid his incessant criticism is going to disintegrate their self-confidence. I hear them argue with each other, using the same tones and inflections that we use.

I know it takes two to tango, but how can I change this dance?

Let's take it one step at a time: First, the children's grades.

Forget about perfection. Children aren't meant to be perfect, and parents shouldn't expect them to be. They might expect their parents to be perfect, too.

You have what many parents cry for -- healthy, popular, normal children. The mother of a child with Down's syndrome or muscular dystrophy would give anything for your good luck and so would the mother of a teen-ager spaced out on drugs.

Your children are fortunate by nature. One is well-liked enough to be a "popularity queen" and the other is intellectually gifted. You can't let the C's (or D's or F's) your children get in math or science or English define them as people. Those grades merely tell you how well they understand -- or want to understand -- math or science or English.

The only measurements of your children that matter are yours -- and theirs. If you could measure their self-confidence, however, you'd probably have cause to worry, for children need encouragement, not criticism, to feel good about themselves. This motivates them to study and to achieve honest goals.

You may think straight A's are more important than some non-academic skill, but the satisfaction that comes from doing a job -- and doing it well -- will teach a child to do the same in school.

It may seem silly for your daughter to think friendships matter more than schoolroom honors, but the psychological and physical image a child has of herself in adolescence is carried into adulthood. Her congeniality will probably make her work as hard as everyone else when she's grown because she'll want to get along with her colleagues. Some people need to have a tangible reason to work hard before they're willing to do it.

It's up to you to give your children the encouragement they need. Your husband is so unsure of himself he can't even discipline them because he'd have to take responsibility if they didn't obey.

It may surprise you but love clearly matters more to him than money. He can't bear to be rejected by his family, so he does the rejecting first.

When a person is so critical of others, he needs to be supported, not corrected. Give him the breaks he needs: compliments, affection and appreciation whenever he's fairly pleasant and ignore him when he criticizes you. There is no reason to buy into his need to punish and be punished.

When he criticizes the children, however, tell him you've already talked with them or if they're in earshot, say, "You heard your dad, kids. Shape up." And find something else to do around the house, or run an errand so the scene isn't prolonged.

Later you tell your children privately -- one at a time -- that you do need them to try harder because they're so terrific and special, and because you love them -- and so does their dad.

Open-handed praise, not more criticism, will change the climate in your house.

Questions may be sent to Family Almanac, P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.