Little kids have big ears — and eyes, too, it would seem. I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that your kids are watching your every move. Careful observation is how children learn about the world, and there's no example more accessible than parents. With you as their model, kids will learn how to manage emotions, solve problems, and function in a primary relationship. We all inevitably make mistakes, but when it comes to setting an example for our children, there are certain things moms modeling strong relationships never do.
My marriage is one in which I have tremendous confidence and faith. My husband and I have grounded our relationship in love and respect, and above all, a mutual commitment to making it work. That doesn't mean my husband doesn't sometimes infuriate me to the point of tears (seriously, who invites five extra people to a party their wife is hosting without asking first?). And I'm sure it's not easy for him to live with a spouse suffering from mental illness (seriously, who cries over a few more party guests?). But as children of divorce, we're acutely aware of the effect our relationship dynamic has on our daughter (and in a few weeks, our newborn son).
It's a work in progress and I mess up as often as I get it right, but I know that children of happily married parents are more likely to grow up to have satisfying romantic relationships themselves. With the goal of modeling a solid, stable relationship in mind, I do my best not to engage in behaviors that are counterproductive, including the following:
Bottle Their Feelings
Repressing feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment only serves to teach our children to do the same. If we want them to be able to tell others when they've done something hurtful and respectfully request that they not do it again, then we have to teach them to express their emotions. We can't do that if we don't use our words ourselves when our partner has crossed a line.
Put The Kids At The Center
When my doctor, a devout Christian, told me during a depression counseling session to put my husband before my child, I'll admit I was initially put off. But he did have a point, and one that applies to me even as an atheist.
If moms prioritize their kids at the expense of their partner's needs, it damages the relationship and devalues it in the eyes of the child. Child-centric families result in self-centered kids who don't understand healthy boundaries.
So, yeah, kiss me first when you get home and let's get date night on the calendar.
Notice that I didn't say they don't compromise. In fact, the ability of both of you to meet halfway is key to the survival of the relationship. This method of problem-solving, however, does not suggest that mom should cave. It's good for children to see a woman with a strong sense of self.
The objective here is a win-win situation, not mom as a doormat, especially when you consider the research that shows rejection of a wife's influence is highly predictive of divorce.
Shoulder All Household Responsibilities
Moms modeling strong relationships insist on an equal division of labor around the house. Regardless of who is the primary breadwinner, it's not good for her mental and physical health to be solely responsible for all childcare and domestic duties.
Having parents who share responsibility for the running of the household also helps fight the barrage of gender stereotypes facing our kids and encourages more equitable expectations for their own future relationships.
Research shows that high conflict marriages are unhealthy for children and adults alike, but that doesn't mean we should avoid disputes altogether. If our children never see us fight (and let's not pretend we don't), they also miss out on the opportunity to see how grown-ups effectively work through arguments.
We also don't want them to grow up thinking that a disagreement means something is broken in the relationship, or that love means pretending you're OK with something you're not.
You can fight in front of your kids, but you have to fight fair. Name-calling, door-slamming, and shouting are all off the table. Ask anyone whose child has uttered a "choice" phrase at preschool, and they'll tell you that "do what I say and not what I do" is not an effective parenting technique.
If you show contempt for your spouse, you give that behavior your tacit approval, and you will see it repeated by your children.
A dear friend recently gave me the following advice: "Be the person you'd want to be married to." I know that if I show remorse for my actions, I want to be forgiven quickly, so I do my best to let bygones be bygones once my husband and I have reached a resolution.
Kids can learn a great deal based on how you handle a situation in which a mistake has been made, including how you will potentially respond to their errors in judgment. There's also the fact that it's hard to be fully engaged in parenting when you're still fuming about something that happened a week ago.
Take The Small Stuff For Granted
When I think of the multitude of things I accomplish as a part-time working, part-time stay-at-home mom, it's easy to dismiss my partner's contributions. Likewise, it's easy to shower him with my gratitude and affection for grand gestures on Mother's Day and my birthday, but forget to thank him for washing my car.
Children are sponges, and they will demonstrate love the way they see it expressed. A hug of appreciation (or even better, for no reason at all, because love isn't earned) goes a long way toward a harmonious home environment.
Settle For Mediocre
Moms modeling strong relationships don't settle for "good enough." They don't let fear of being alone keep them in a disappointing marriage, and they don't delude themselves that exposing a child to an unhealthy relationship is somehow better than divorce.
That being said, if the relationship still has the potential for happiness and fulfillment, they don't give up. They make daily investments in their partner for the sake of the relationship, even when it feels too hard. Because at the end of the day (literally), that relationship is the stability upon which everything else is founded.