Q: We've been taking a very laid-back approach with our 3-year-old. I call it the third-child method of parenting. But it's time to face the reality that our little roommate needs more structure and guidance as he moves into the next stages of his life. My husband HATES being told what to do, especially with parenting. He wants to just float along and as long as our child isn't murdering someone, he thinks we're doing enough. But it's really time to make some moves on potty training, table manners, etc. and be more cognizant about conversations and behavior in front of this little sponge. How can I help my husband realize the importance of intentional parenting?

A: There are many questions within this one question, and I am unsure of what to tackle first. Almost every parent gets to the point where they have one of two realizations: You are either holding too many or too few boundaries with your little one. I never fault parents for either of these. How are you supposed to know? Parenting is an ever-changing landscape, and you are growing and changing as much as your child. So, congratulations, you have learned that you need to tighten the reins a bit. Welcome to the club.

It does concern me that you seem to have two 3-year-olds under your roof: your child and your husband. One of the most prominent traits of a 3-year-old is what developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls counterwill. Counterwill is the natural human inclination to resist being bossed around, and we see it in young children all the time. It is an important part of the developmental process; a young child cannot become their own person unless they constantly say “NO!” Want to walk to the car? No! Want to get into the tub? No! Want to get dressed? No! It is so typical for the age that I have yet to read a development book or talk to a pediatrician who doesn’t mention it.

And because all of these “No’s” are a challenge to parents, we have to figure out when to hold on to our boundaries while still finding ways to connect, say yes and have fun. Through tears and connection, most humans grow into people who can handle the ups and downs of life. But sometimes (quite often, in fact) there are adults who, despite having successes in many aspects of their lives, still manage to have a great deal of counterwill.

I am unsure if you are being facetious or serious when you say your husband hates being told what to do, “especially with parenting.” But if you aren’t kidding? You have a long road ahead of you, and here’s why: If the standard is “my child isn’t murdering anyone, so let’s float along,” I am afraid it will be left to you to do the heavy lifting of parenting. And guess what that will lead to? Resentment. I am never going to suggest that every parent is on the same page (I am thrilled if they are in the same book), but actively resisting any change in parenting that requires more than “floating along” is a recipe for disaster.

Do I think you need to do everything you listed in this letter, all at once? No. You don’t need to go from utterly relaxed to full-court press. But allowing your 3-year-old free rein isn’t the happy middle here. Your son needs boundaries now so that he can handle trials later. He needs to hear “no” and “not now” so that he respects others saying those words. Though I think you are up to the challenge of helping your son adapt, the relationship you really need to work on is your marriage. Co-parenting with someone who refuses to change or do what is best for their child is a serious problem, and I strongly recommend seeing a good marriage therapist if your spouse refuses to budge (either with him or alone).

Get your communication to a place where your husband’s counterwill doesn’t hijack the family, because having to parent a stubborn child and a stubborn adult is not what you signed up for (I hope).

Good luck.

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