Love Lessons: How to Raise Your Child to Be a Good Spouse
(from Parents Magazine)
We were excited about meeting our new babysitter, a high school senior with top references and her own car. As I showed her the house, our 9-year-old son, Aidan, tagged along.
In the kitchen, I said, “For dinner, you can make macaroni and cheese,” and pointed to a box I’d left on the counter.
The girl paled. “I can’t cook.”
“That’s okay,” Aidan said. “I’ll cook for us.”
That was the moment when I knew my son would make a great husband one day—the result of a secret master plan I’ve been working on for years.
My plan started taking shape after hearing Aidan tell a kindergarten buddy, “You can just leave those toys on the floor. My mommy will clean up.”
That remark set my hair on fire. Never mind the fact that all kids should learn independence and responsibility. Hearing Aidan say that led me to see that I was raising a boy who might morph into a lazy husband—one whose wife (if he was lucky enough to dupe someone into marriage) would have to endlessly nag him.
Asking ourselves what kind of husband, wife or partner our child will be isn’t something most parents think about. We’re too buy hurdling more obvious obstacles, like getting our baby to sleep through the night or teaching our toddler not to resort to combat mode when we say “no.” However, it’s never too early to instill the values your child needs for a happy relationship, and it’s easier than you think.
Chores Don’t Do Themselves
Nobody needs to do any scientific studies to know that the moms complaining about their husbands at the bus stop are the ones married to guys who don’t pitch in. Men are doing better in the housework department—the National Science Foundation reports that the amount of housework done by women has decreased since 1976, as more women have gone back to work, and men have doubled their time getting tasks done on the home front. Yet there’s still a gender divide.
For instance, a report issued by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research shows that husbands create an extra seven hours a week of housework for wives—while men spend an hour less on chores after marriage. For married women with children, things go downhill fast: wives with more than three kids log about 28 hours of housework weekly, while men with the same number of kids put in about 10 hours. Not surprisingly, couples who divide housework and parenting tasks equally are happier than those who don’t, studies show.
Discussing the division of labor early in your marriage can head off disputes and gives kids good role models to follow, says Jennifer Anderson of Newburyport, Massachusetts. The mother of two young children and the author of “Pondering Jane,” nominated by Parents as one of the best parenting blogs of 2011, she and her husband divide chores evenly despite the fact that she’s a stay-at-home mom and he works full-time. “My kids see us both doing everything, so they don’t have any bias about certain jobs being male or female,” she says. “They know that everyone in a family works as a team.”
Everyone Deserves Respect
We all know and dread seeing couples who criticize each other about everything from haircuts to driving skills. The cornerstone of a good marriage is respect for one another, and modeling that for your children gives them a better shot at forging happy adult partnerships, says Parents advisor Harley Rotbart, M.D., vice chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and author of No Regrets Parenting.
“We like to think that we can act like ourselves at home, as long as we put on our best manners in public,” says Dr. Rotbart. “But what our neighbors think about how we treat our spouses is actually a lot less important in the long run than what our kids think.”
Amy Ames of Raleigh, North Carolina, teaches her two sons how to respect others by treating her husband respectfully—and her children, too. For example, if she wants to use the family iPad and one of her sons has it, she asks for it politely rather than demanding that he turn it over. Encouraging children to respect people outside the family is also important, she believes.
“Even when my boys are just hanging out with friends, I expect them to speak and act nicely,” she says. “Learning to show respect for others is bound to carry over into their adult relationships.”
In my own marriage, my husband and I strive to stick to this simple rule: no matter how tired or cranky we are, we keep the eye rolling and sarcastic remarks to a minimum, and focus on treating each other the way we treat our best friends.
Good Conversation is a Two-Way Street
Have you ever gone into a restaurant and seen that table with the couple that doesn’t speak? They focus on their food and look everywhere but at each other—either because they’ve run out of things to say, or because they know they’ll quarrel if one of them starts a conversation.
Being able to talk openly and constructively with each other about everything from grooming habits to mortgage refinancing is key to a good marriage. If you can air your disagreements, you have a better shot at resolving disputes—and at growing together instead of apart as time passes.
To teach children how to converse in a meaningful way with their future spouses, Dr. Rotbart offers this advice: “Teach your kids how to listen to others by listening to them.”
When your child comes to you with news about friends or an announcement about what new toy he’s coveting, stay in the moment. “Don’t think about the work you left at the office or the dishes you need to wash,” Dr. Rotbart says. “Focus on listening to your child without interruption, then ask a few questions or make a comment. This will help teach your kids to be good listeners.”
It’s equally important to teach your child how to share his thoughts in a conversation instead of relying on flippant remarks or grunts to get by. Encouraging certain children to talk is more difficult than teaching them to listen, as Ames discovered with her oldest son, now eleven. “It took me a while to realize that he wasn’t avoiding me,” she says. “He’s just a lot like his dad, who isn’t a big talker. I do feel like I carry more conversational weight in my marriage, and sometimes that’s exhausting.”
Ames decided to deliberately work on her older son’s conversational skills in the hope that his future wife or partner won’t have the same conversational struggles she has in her own marriage. Her best solution yet? Car rides. “I stopped letting my sons bring video games in the car last year,” she says. “Since then, my older son and I have discovered that we actually have a lot to talk about.”
Tune into Emotions
Ask a boy how he feels after a long day at school, and he’ll probably say, “Fine.” Ask a girl, and she’ll be more likely to say that her best friend didn’t sit with her at lunch, happy she got a part in the school play and nervous about her math test.
Anyone who’s married to one probably knows what researchers have discovered: Men are typically less able than women to identify their own emotions and empathize with the emotions of others. This inequality starts early, says Susan Witt, Ph.D., a professor of child and family development at the University of Akron, as parents comfort little girls who cry or encourage them to talk about their emotions, while those same parents are more apt to tell sons to “man up” and stop sniveling.
“Men who are taught to suppress their emotions as children often become husbands whose wives complain about them because they can’t open up,” says Dr. Witt. And that’s a shame, because a husband’s inability to be emotionally engaged with his wife often causes marital problems.
How can you raise children who are well-equipped to share their emotions with adult partners? As always, this lesson is best learned through example. “Many moms today are developing their sons’ emotional intelligence by helping them share their feelings,” reports Kate Stone Lombardi, author of The Mama Boy Myth: Why keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. Even small things, like talking to your toddler about how cartoon characters might be feeling in a video, can help kids learn to identify and talk about their emotions, she found.
As a child, I had a crush on Mr. Spock, the know-it-all Vulcan Science Officer on “Star Trek” who struggles to contain the emotional life he inherited from his human mother. Ironically, I married my crush, in the form of a software engineer who, like Spock, knows the answer to almost any question—but sometimes struggles with his human half and can’t come clean emotionally. I love my husband’s intellectual agility, and I am in awe of how fast he can fix anything from a leaky faucet to a computer glitch. Still, sometimes I wish he acted more like a girlfriend and tuned into my emotions as readily as I understand his.
I used to worry that my son would be just as oblivious to other people’s emotions as his dad—until my husband was unexpectedly laid off from work last summer. I was working in my home office when Aidan stopped in and said, “It sure is hard for Dad to talk about his emotions, Mom.”
I looked up from my computer, startled. “What do you mean?”
Aidan explained that he’d been making lunch when his dad came into the kitchen and said, “Grilled cheese, huh? That’s a cheap lunch. Good thing, since I lost my job today.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“Then Dad just went upstairs without saying anything else,” Aidan said. “He must really be sad.”
“He is,” I told Aidan, “and it’s good you see that. Now let’s think about how to make him feel better.”
Yes, I thought, as I followed Aidan upstairs to find his dad: whoever loves my son many years from now will be very lucky indeed. He will do some of the cooking and cleaning, he’ll treat her with respect, and he’ll make great conversation. Most important of all, he’ll try to understand how she feels.