By Vicki Little
No matter what sort of family you were born into — large or small, average or dysfunctional, typical or Stepford — you can’t help but be affected by your family in some way. Jenna McCarthy at Parent’s magazine reveals that a longitudinal study published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the quality of a child’s parents’ marriage had as much influence on his or her future mental and physical health and well-being as his or her own relationship with either parent. When you look at your own relationship, is it one you would want for your kids? Would you want your kids to follow your lead? Your children are learning a lot from your marriage, so be sure you teach them the best values you can. For instance:
How to treat their spouse, and how to expect their spouse to treat them. As much as your children may grumble and get grossed-out, they secretly love it when you come home and kiss your spouse at the end of the day. Touch is an important aspect of relationships, but if you never do it, your child may see it as “weird” and gross, even as they grow older. They are also watching how you speak to each other and how you interact non-verbally. In an article titled Teaching Children About Being Considerate, marriage and family therapist Melody Brooke cautions parents to “recognize that children mimic the behavior they witness, if you are considerate to others, then they will learn that this is how you treat other people.” If rolled eyes and harsh words are the norm, that is what they will feel comfortable with. But if you are loving and kind, that is what your child will expect in their household as well.
How to support each other, even when there’s a disagreement. No one agrees all the time and that is absolutely fine. It would be boring if you did. But respecting each other’s opinions and supporting each other’s choices despite differing opinions is part of what shapes a healthy relationship. A key area children are watching here is discipline. It’s important to have a unified front and to talk privately (beforehand, if possible) to agree on punishments. Even if you don’t agree with your spouse, you can find a compromise on how to handle the situation better next time.
How to fight fair and resolve conflicts correctly. Fights with spouses have the potential to be particularly nasty since both parties have extensive knowledge of the other side. They know what hurts the most, what will make someone angry, and what will help them “win” the argument. None of this ever helps and there are never any real winners. The ones who lose are the kids. It is OK for kids to see parents disagree and even to argue. But it is important that they also see how parents talk through disagreements and how they resolve them without it getting ugly. If you can model good conversation techniques, such as truly listening to the other person and paraphrasing back what you’ve heard, your children will start to adopt those techniques as well. It will seem like a normal, constructive conversation to them instead of forced dialogue. Teaching children how to resolve conflicts or disagreements by speaking kindly to others is an important life skill — both within and outside of a marriage.
How to persevere when things are tough. No relationship is perfect, and every relationship takes a lot of hard work, compromise, patience, understanding, and kindness. If you run away from every tough situation, or if you turn away from your spouse instead of towards them when things go wrong, your children will do this, too. When they face hard times (even when they are still young and under your roof), they will turn away, rebel, and become defiant. This pattern will continue into their own marriages. Instead, lead by example and stick it out through hard times so your children see that, while it may take hard work, the payoff of persevering is worth it. In her article What Your Children Learn From Your Marriage, relationship coach Sara Freed sums it up by saying “your children will be able to see your commitment to your marriage. Children are naturally perceptive and observant. They can tell when things might be a struggle. But they will be able to see that you and your spouse don’t give up easily. And then they will learn not to give up easily, too”
How to put their needs first. Parents give up a lot for their children. They put off going back to school. They miss craft night with the girls to care for a sick child. They miss date nights because the kids hate sitters. And parents do this lovingly, with no regrets. But parents also have things they want/need to do as well, and kids will learn to respect those boundaries if their parents have an area that is off-limits to negotiations — like time spent on their marriage. At some point, children grow up and leave, so parents need to carve out time to pursue their own interests and adult time together. The children who see this growing up will then be more inclined to carve out important time for themselves, too.
Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two children. A Colorado native, she spends her time writing, sitting in the bleachers for her daughter’s gymnastics, and engaging in spirited debates with her son. In her free time…well, she is still waiting for some of that.
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