Don’t Forget, Your Kids Are Watching Your Marriage

Focus on the Family
Sarah Hilgendorf

I watch Holland, my 9-year-old daughter, take tentative steps around the house in my high heels, a favorite scarf of mine draped around her neck in a loose approximation of how I’d worn it earlier that day. Later, she helps her dad, Nick, in the kitchen, observing as he swishes sliced leeks in a bowl of water to remove the grit. Then she assumes the task.

Our every move seems to be an unintentional lesson in how to do things. This is also true when it comes to relationships, and no relationship influences Holland’s estimation of how humans should behave toward one another more than my marriage. She watches how Nick and I interact, discerns what defines our relationship, and again and again notes, So that’s how it’s done.

Someday, she’ll be walking in my shoes. Not just literally, but figuratively, in her role as an adult, perhaps a wife, a mom. Your kids will follow in your footsteps, too.

So how are our marriages equipping our kids with the skills they need? What are those relationship lessons we’re teaching? I’ll go first.

Disagreement is OK — even productive. Disrespect is not.

In my home, some of the most heated arguments happen during the news. Reports spark lively conversation and, sometimes, more lively arguments. Holland observes, and I don’t think that’s bad. Someday, perhaps most days, she’ll find herself disagreeing with someone. I want her to do this with respect and confidence. So we show her how it’s done.

We let Holland witness conflict to send the message that conflict is normal — it means that both people are human. What helps?

  • Don’t let your child pick a side.
  • Stay out of kid earshot when disagreements involve money, parenting or sex.
  • Avoid moralizing arguments that have nothing to do with morality. Kids see in black and white, so help them recognize that not every disagreement stems from right vs. wrong.
  • Don’t let your child equate resolution with one particular parent always getting his or her way. You wouldn’t want to send the message that one of you is a pushover and the other is a bully, right?

We all make mistakes and need forgiveness.

There are times when Nick and I are something less than respectful toward each other. For instance, we can occasionally be heard telling each other, “That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” When we rashly say whatever comes to mind, our unfiltered comments aren’t always pretty. And when they’re not, our daughter sees us model how to acknowledge we’ve crossed the line — and how to apologize. What helps?

  • When an argument disintegrates, heading out of earshot is wise. But reappear for the resolution — model asking for and granting forgiveness.
  • Be sincere. If you sulk and avoid eye contact after “making up,” what message does that send about the hollow nature of apologies and forgiveness?
  • Tempting as it is to point fingers, focus on your own part in the argument, rather than your spouse’s.

Commitment means being there for each other, even when you’d rather be somewhere (or anywhere) else.

Once a year, my husband travels 800 miles to go camping in the dead of winter with a group of his buddies. One year, this trip coincided with my getting the type of flu that renders otherwise-competent parents completely useless. He stayed home. And he didn’t make me feel terrible about it.

Sometimes relationships require that of us — to be disappointed that the task in front of us is ours, but to do it anyway. What helps?

  • It’s good for kids to see that problems happen and you’re committed to solving them together.
  • Avoid keeping score: “I covered for you last week, so I expect you to _____ .” This kind of record keeping makes being there for each other look more like indebtedness than commitment.
  • Acknowledge your spouse’s commitment in front of the kids: “I know things have been rough at work lately, and I really appreciate the way you provide for us.”

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