It runs counter to our instincts as parents, but making your kids your top priority may be doing them more harm than good. I received this email after my appearance on the BBC:
"My first marriage broke down with two children because I gave them ALL my time. Now, with my lovely new hubby and a set of twins, all six of us laugh more than ever, due to my husband and I balancing time for us, as well as them!"
-- Gayle in Leeds, England
These days, we parents are so afraid of screwing up our kids that we break our backs to provide perfect, trauma-free childhoods for them.
Um, where are the results? Studies show today's parents spend more time with their kids, and yet today's kids don't seem happier. They seem more troubled, entitled and needy. Here are the top three myths of parenting today:
You might say that today's parents seem to be marrying their children instead of their spouses. The truth is, we often find it easier to be with our kids than our partners. This may seem child-friendly, but we don't realize we're using our kids to escape from our spouses. But kids pick up on everything, so you can't hide the tension in a household. Children soak up the silent, free-floating stress until their fragile little nervous systems hit "overload," and then they act out or get sick. Think of it as the mind-body connection between a parent's anxious mind and a child's sensitive body. Parents don't realize they are off-loading their anxiety onto their kids, and then kids act-out.
For many of today's couples, the children are priority No. 1 and marriage is maybe priority No. 10. But few of us make it past our top three priorities on our daily to-do list. Children and their demands seem urgent, whereas our marriages are important, but not urgent. So we neglect to feed and water our marriages, which die so slowly and quietly that we don't even realize our mistake until it's too late. But knowledge is power, so once we learn how to prioritize and nourish our marriages, it's win-win for the family. We can improve our marriages, pass less baggage onto our kids, and set a great example for their future relationships!
Most couples believe that if they don't argue much, then they don't have relationship problems. Sure, nobody enjoys it when our fight response is triggered, but avoiding our problems is worse. The real silent killer in marriage is our flight response. We think it's noble when we "keep the peace" in our marriage. But our so-called keeping the peace may actually be our flight response in disguise. There are many ways we "flee" our spouses every day: we turn to our electronic screens, we work long hours, shuttle our kids or co-sleep with our kids. Then we make up great excuses why we never have sex anymore. We don't even realize our relationships are dying until we wake up five years later and notice we're living like roommates under the same roof. That's when people file for divorce, or have an affair.
The greatest gift to modern marriage is a walkie-talkie with a voice-activated switch, because it works like a high-tech baby monitor. After the kids fall asleep, set the monitor beside them and then take a stroll around your yard with your spouse, sharing your thoughts, feelings and dreams. Unless you live on an estate, you can sprint to Junior's bedside in 20 seconds.
Many of us harbor a secret, unspoken belief that we'd be happy "if we could just start over again with the right person." But we're kidding ourselves, because the divorce rate for second marriages is 60 percent, and 73 percent for third marriages.
Our next spouse would be just as immature as our first spouse was--they just show their immaturity in different ways. Here's why: It all starts with chemistry. Humans have forgotten that we are animals, and the powerful chemistry we feel when we fall in love is a primal mating instinct that helps us scope out our ideal mate. But here's the Big Shocker: chemistry is actually Mother Nature's way of making sure we instinctively choose a mate with our same level of anxiety!
The key is to realize that anxiety is a survival instinct. Back in our cave man days, anxiety helped us to worry--to anticipate possible dangers and trigger our fight-or-flight response to get out of danger.
For example, if you were a "cave person" who was highly anxious, and overreacted to every noise you heard in the bushes, but your mate lounged in the sun even as the lion roared nearby, you wouldn't last long together. So, back then, you wanted a mate with your same level of anxiety, because that meant you'd both react in similar ways to danger. You might say the couple who 'fights or flees' together stays together--and reproduces.
Mother Nature doesn't lie: You and your spouse felt chemistry for each other because you both have the same level of anxiety. Our level of anxiety determines how we react (or overreact) to others--in other words, our maturity level. For example, when we're anxious we tend to be irritable, and more likely to criticize or blame our spouse. The more anxious we are, the more immaturely we behave, because our anxiety triggers our fight-or-flight response more often in our marriages.
So the next time you're feeling superior, accept that you're just as anxious and immature as your spouse is, and settle down to create the best marriage possible. Both you and your kids will be glad you did.
- Check out my Book Of The Year award
- I'm in The New York Times.
Follow David Code on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DavidCode