by: Gary Stokes
The marital relationship is the most important factor in raising children well. My wife and I failed to achieve a great marriage, so we were mediocre parents most of the time and often worse than mediocre.
Married at 17 and 18, we didn’t know much about marriage. Our parents had avoided divorce, but did not provide a model for a loving marriage. Three children came early and—in the absence of maturity—my wife and I made it up as we went along.
A great deal of our energy was diverted from our children, burned up in our conflicts with each other. There were many arguments, most of them repeated over and over because we seemed unable to learn anything significant about ourselves. We were not mature adults when we gave birth to our children, so we never really gave parenting our top commitment, even when we reached our thirties. Other commitments dominated: for me getting a college education while working second shift in a factory and then golfing, tennis, or bowling on weekends with friends to find some fun and relaxation.
For my wife, getting a college degree became a priority at the same time she had to maintain a home, take the kids to the doctor, get groceries and cook meals. Later, professional careers took top priority as we established ourselves in middle-class life. I don’t remember my wife and I ever talking about how we were doing as parents. We had other priorities. Our parenting skill set had some strengths: on the surface, we were normal, intelligent, decent people who made sure their children were safe, fed, nurtured, and encouraged. But our children did not have our full attention.
By the time our children were in high school, our home life was dysfunctional and dangerous. We were all depressed, lonely, and isolated. Love was hard to find in our household toward the end of our marriage. Tensions were high, with teenagers getting into trouble in the outside world and parents paralyzed in battle. My wife and I were no longer able to provide the love, attention, and adult guidance children must have for good emotional health and happiness.
As divorced parents, finally, we both became better parents alone than we had been together. Most of us parents agree that raising children can be the most challenging and humbling job we ever accept.
First, raising children well requires immense amounts of energy, and when our energy runs out, the children are still there needing more of us than we think we have.
Second, raising children well requires commitment, our top commitment. The trouble is that other commitments—jobs, getting the car repaired, practicing the guitar, keeping up our friendships, planning for retirement, and a zillion other elements of modern life—compete with our most important commitment for our time and focus.
Third, raising children well requires unconditional love, wisdom, problem solving intelligence, flexibility, and endless improvisation and creativity. Often, we parents realize that we don’t have the full skill set.
Finally, raising children well requires a great marriage, a marriage that can produce the energy required to raise children. A great marriage can make sure that the children’s development and safety get top priority, time, and focus. Marital partners in a vibrant marriage can pull together the skill set required for raising children well, even though neither one can do it individually.
Here is what parents can do now. You can improve your marriage and your parenting dramatically by doing these things:
1. Understand and agree that your relationship is the most important thing in your lives. You are learning to love together. As you grow in love, each of you will thrive. Your job is creating Team Happiness, a powerful partnership committed to discovering life’s joys and sharing those joys with everyone you encounter. If life’s challenges and temptations pull you away from your relationship, remind each other that your work of love needs to move back into the top position.
2. Understand that parenting your children is intrinsic to your marital relationship. You can be successful as Team Happiness only if your children are included fully as team members under your leadership. Your relationship with each other has a profound effect on your children, and—simultaneously—if your children are happy, thriving, and healthy, they have a profoundly positive impact on your marriage.
3. Go after each other’s potential. Talk constantly about your marital relationship and about your parenting. Assess how you’re doing. Check in with each other. Schedule and take quality time to have intimate conversations about what you need to learn next—both as individuals and as a couple. Talk is required to become more conscious beings. Pursuing each other’s potential and the potential of your children is love in action.
There can be a second chance if we didn’t have a great marriage when our children were growing up. If we’re lucky, as I was, we find a great marriage after divorce. Knowing more now, we are able to take our proper initiation in love. Finally, we become a member of Team Happiness.
Our new marital team can provide needed love and support to our adult children. It may take some doing if our children withdrew from us after divorce, but with the advantage of a lifegiving marriage, we can reach out to our mature children in some fresh ways. And if we are lucky enough to have grandchildren, as I do, we have a chance to give them everything that we wanted to give our children, but didn’t. Or maybe we simply take all of the children on the globe into our love’s embrace, finding creative ways to help them be safe and thriving. We can still lead Team Happiness, after all.
Gary Stokes was founder and CEO of a national laboratory testing new strategies for the development of children and families in poverty. He has coached hundreds of leaders who are working to build stronger families, including Presidential appointees and other top executives in government and education. Gary is a contributing expert at HopeAfterDivorce.org, FamilyShare.com, and LAFamily.com. His recent book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide, charts a path toward a vibrant life of joy and practical advantage. He maps the universe of poise on his blog,http://www.thepoisedlife.com/