By Marriage Laboratory -November 2, 2021
In the past six years of blogging, I’ve learned a little secret of how to get people to care about whatever marriage principle I’m writing about:
Include some benefit for their kids.
I’ve learned when I say things like, “Hey, studies have shown that the strength of your closest relationship does more to predict your life expectancy than your health, air quality or income.” People say, “Oh interesting.”
But when I say, “Hey, studies have shown that the stronger your marriage, the happier and more stable your kids turn out.” People say, “WHAT?!?! HOW CAN WE STRENGTHEN OUR MARRIAGE?!?!”
By FAR the most feedback and interest on my weekly Sex Question Wednesdays is not when I talk about how to make our sex lives better, it’s when when I talk about how to make our KIDS have a healthier sexuality.
Likewise, when I talk about negative emotion intolerance, my audience shrugs indifferently. But when I say “here’s how we increase our kids’ negative emotion intolerance”….. those are some of my most popular posts.
I find this phenomenon fascinating. It never fails. I don’t have a mommy blog, but I can see why mommy blogs VASTLY outnumber marriage blogs.
Its as if we’ve given up on our ourselves and all our hopes and dreams now lie with our kids.* We care FAR more about our kids’ happiness than we do about our marital happiness. The irony of course is that a happy marriage IS how you raise happy kids.
Speaking of ironies, here’s a few more:
– The way we teach our kids emotional regulation IS TO BE EMOTIONALLY REGULATED OURSELVES!
– The only way to teach our kids that sex is positive and beautiful is if SEX IS ACTUALLY A POSITIVE AND BEAUTIFUL THING IN OUR LIVES!
– The way we set our kids up to develop healthy stable relationships, is TO MODEL A HEALTHY STABLE RELATIONSHIP WITH OUR SPOUSE!
We cannot fake this.
Believe me, I have tried.
I’ve tried to get my kids to care about cleaning. But my attempts to make them care about keeping their rooms tidy when mine consistently looks like Hurricane Lazy just blew through, fall flat.
In the end, who we are and what we care about, not what we say, is what is going to influence our kids.
Personal story time.
This summer, I’ve seen a lot of questions and discussions on how to talk to our kids about race. These are good and appropriate questions and discussions, but here’s the thing, unless we, their parents, actually truly care about racial equality, our kids won’t either. They’re not going to remember those three conversations we initiated, they’ll remember and internalize the hundreds of conversations we had about the house or the neighbors or whatever it is that is on our mind all the time and pops out of our mouths without forethought.
Many, many years ago for a book club we read Nurture Shock. In the chapter about race it said it’s not enough to say to our kids, “everyone is equal, we love everyone.” They mentioned a study where a first grade class was arbitrarily divided in half. Half wore red shirts all week, the other half blue. At the end of the week, researchers asked each group a series of questions. Both groups reported thinking that their shirt color group was smarter, kinder, harder working and better in every way than the other color. If we don’t PROACTIVELY teach our kids otherwise, they will have this same tendency with skin color, especially factoring in white privilege. We have to teach them the history of oppression and privilege.
I read this and can honestly say this was the first time I put any real thought into what I was doing to teach my kids about race. I felt called out. I thought I was doing good to say, “Everyone is equal, we love everyone.” I didn’t know what else TO say. It seemed so tricky and hard to talk to them about it. I didn’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing.
Fast forward seven years and I care now about racism in a way I never did then. I started noticing and caring and reading; and with time, I started to see my own privilege bubble. To say I’m embarrassed by my former small-mindedness is an understatement.
All that to say, now I care about racial equality. And I care not just to make my kids anti-racist, but I strive FOR ME to be anti-racist, independent of any benefit to them. I’m not saying I’m perfect or I’m doing enough, it will be a life-long endeavor, but I do CARE.
So this summer talking to my kids about race felt like a night and day difference to talking with them seven years ago. It doesn’t feel tricky or hard. I don’t stop to wonder if I’m saying the wrong thing. I don’t scratch my head and think, “What do I say?” It feels more like, “How can I NOT talk to them about something that is consuming so many of my thoughts?” I don’t flounder for words, I say what is on my mind and heart. They saw me crying when footage of George Floyd broke. They cried with me. Our conversations never felt forced or awkward or formal, they flowed as a natural extension of something I care about.
Yet another personal story:
I experienced the exact same thing in teaching my kids about sex. With my oldest, I was so nervous and anxious, so desperate to say just the right words- to get her excited, but not too excited, ya know? It felt so tricky. My confidence in my ability to tread these waters was so low, that I actually copied an exact script from a how to talk to your kids about sex book and brought NOTE CARDS to have a conversation with my daughter. Yikes…..
As if I thought my words would speak louder than the anxiety oozing out of my tone, dripping off my body language, flowing from the formal awkwardness, and duh, my note cards.
I was hoping to bring my daughter up past my own level of development. I was hoping to instill in her a positive relationship with something I didn’t yet have.
(and I know there are a few of you out there with this same hope, since when I told of this epic failure in my stories, not 1, not 2, but FOUR of you DM’d me asking for my script……. )
Over the next few years I did a lot of work in improving my own relationship with my own sexuality. Consequently, teaching my second daughter about sex didn’t feel forced or awkward. And it isn’t just a one-time conversation, it’s an on-going flow of something I think a lot about. My excitement for her sexual development is genuine instead of laced with palpable anxiety.
This I know: if we want to teach our kids to love themselves, we don’t do it by finding the right words to teach them about love – WE LOVE OURSELVES.
If we want to teach them forgiveness, WE FORGIVE.
If we want to teach them to apologize effectively, WE APOLOGIZE.
If we want our kids to be good spouses one day- WE BECOME A GOOD SPOUSE.
If we want our kids to care about racial equality, we have to care first.
If we want our kids to have healthy sexuality- WE must develop a healthy relationship with our own sexuality.
Good parenting doesn’t look like I once thought it would- it doesn’t look like endless self-sacrifice, rigid discipline and formal sit down teaching sessions. It’s so tempting to believe that if we set enough rules and have the right scripts, we can control our kids turning out just the way we want.
But rather, good parenting, I’m realizing, looks an awful lot like letting go of trying to control my kids and refocusing those efforts onto my own learning and growing and developing into the kind of human I hope they one day become.
*Friendly reminder, we are worthy of having dreams and developing ourselves even if there wasn’t one lick of benefit for our kids. We are worth self development for our own sake! I mean our own development and pursuing our dreams will ironically always benefit our kids, but even if that weren’t true, we’re allowed to develop for our own sake!