Some lessons are better caught than taught.
I know I’ve uttered that very phrase myself many times, especially when it comes to raising our three children. I am sure you have experienced this as well: those little everyday-life kinds of lessons that provide a golden opportunity that teaches children profound truths as they simply watch us walk through an experience. We don’t even need to follow it up with a big speech to them about the life lesson they just learned because the experience speaks for itself. Such modeling is a wonderful, powerful and sobering teacher.
And they do indeed learn from it. But the tough question is: What exactly are they learning from us?
We would be wise as parents to be aware that not all the lessons our kids catch from us are good. In fact, if we are honest we have to admit that sometimes they can actually be quite harmful, perpetuating a legacy of dysfunction, unhealthy communication patterns, and selfish behavior that we unwittingly pass down from one generation to the next.
I recently lectured in our undergraduate class at Biola University about the sources of influence in relationships. One of the primary influencers happens to be our family of origin. In other words, the family we grew up in yesterday significantly impacts how we live out our familial relationships today. And the same will be true for our children.
Do you realize that much of how you interact with your spouse has to do with what you observed in your own parents’ relationship style? We can often times find ourselves repeating, either knowingly or unknowingly, their tones, their words, their behaviors, their responses to one another. Suddenly, “theirs” has become ours. And not always for the good.
Could we be perpetuating the same things with our children? Could we be passing on to them “relationship-killers”?
Just being aware of the battle can make it easier for us to identify our own unhealthy relationship habits and motivate us to make the necessary changes so that we teach our children healthy, life-giving, relationship-saving lessons.
So let’s look at six top relationship-killers parents teach their kids and what we can do to change them.
1. Talking poorly about your spouse—either to or in front of your kids.
We’ve all been in that situation with our friends where we just need to vent about a recent conflict with our spouse. However, be cautious and limit sharing anything negative about your spouse to others, and NEVER do in front of your kids. This could undermine your children’s ability to respect, depend on and trust your spouse as a parent, thus undermining their parent/child relationship.
Instead, brag on your spouse publicly, especially within earshot of your children.
Regularly call your kids’ attention to something your spouse does well and then encourage them to be “just like him/her” in that area. If you do happen to share a negative, follow the “5 to 1 ratio” rule and share five positive things about your spouse in front of or to your children.
2. Criticizing your spouse
“You’re so lazy.”
“Don’t you ever think of anyone besides yourself?”
“Yes, you cleaned the kitchen, but you always forget to wipe down the counter tops.”
Criticizing is not constructive. It attacks your spouse’s character and makes them feel as if they are never good enough. A strong indicator of criticism is using “you always” or “you never” statements. If pervasive, it makes your spouse feel assaulted, rejected and hurt. It’s also very ineffective because it keeps your spouse from being able to receive what you’re trying to communicate because of the harshness of the delivery.
Instead, learn to complain without blame.
A complaint focuses on a specific behavior using “I feel statements” and then expresses a positive need or desired outcome. For example, “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with cleaning responsibilities when you leave your dishes in the sink (complaint). Can you please rinse them and put them in the dishwasher as soon as you’re done eating (positive need)?” This will teach your children the how to articulate a valid complaint or express a need they have without stuffing their emotions, fear of rejection or invalidation.
3. Being Defensive
It’s not unusual to become defensive when you sense you are being criticized, but it’s also not healthy. Defensiveness is a form of self-protection when you feel attacked. It’s a way of turning the tables to blame your spouse, saying in effect, “The problem isn’t me; it’s you.” “I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t _____” (fill in the blank).
This is problematic because it misses the opportunity to teach your children how to take personal responsibility when they mess up, and this is a vital relationship skill for them to develop for any and all their relationships in life.
Instead, be willing to accept personal responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.
“You’re right. I did say I would get the car cleaned. I should have given you a heads-up that I wouldn’t be able to do it yesterday because my schedule was so packed. I’ll go do it right now.”
This will teach your children how to own their own mistakes, especially when they’ve seen you extend grace and forgiveness to each other when you’ve messed up.
4. Showing contempt for your spouse when they irritate you.
We all have things we do that irritate each other, and that’s just life. However, you cross the line when you mock your spouse with sarcasm, name-calling, mimic them or roll your eyes at them. This makes your spouse feel despised and worthless. (Fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your spouse, this is the single greatest predictor of divorce.)
Showing contempt conveys feelings of disgust for your spouse. It teaches your children disdain and disrespect for their parent, and to feel superior to others, as if they are entitled or owed something.
Instead, regularly express appreciation, admiration and respect for your spouse.
Daily speak the life-giving words of “I appreciate you because _______,”
“Thank you for _______,” and “Wow, you’re really good at_______.”
This builds a culture of gratitude in your home and teaches your children to express their respect and appreciation for their parents, as well as others. This is a great way to fight a sense of entitlement in your kids.
5. One-Sentence Explosions
This occurs when you let anger, resentment, and disappointments build up without saying anything. Instead of dealing with it as it occurs, you let it build up and then express it in an angry outburst or explosion.
This teaches your children to stuff their negative emotions and ignore their unexpressed needs and expectations until they explode in anger. It teaches them to try to avoid conflict and stay silent rather than address important issues in an emotionally safe way.
Instead, keep short accounts with each other. Learn to express disappointments and hurts right away in an appropriate way (see # 2 above), speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
This teaches your children healthy communication skills and how to manage conflict in an appropriate, kind, yet forthright way in their relationships.
6. Withdrawing (stonewalling) from your spouse when your feelings are hurt or you’re angry.
This means that you stop interacting, you ignore, and/or you refuse to engage with your spouse. A good indicator of stonewalling during a conflict is when you use the phrase, “Whatever,” and roll your eyes. It’s actually a form of self-protection when you feel overwhelmed by the conflict or a sense of “here we go again.” You find it easier to tune out, act busy or just walk away than to continue the discussion.
While similar to the one-sentence explosion – this habit also teaches your children to stuff their negative emotions and to ignore their needs and unmet expectations – it does not necessarily lead to an outburst of anger. However, if left unaddressed, it leaves your spouse feeling dangerously disconnected emotionally and can result in significant feelings of distress and emotional abandonment.
Instead, when you feel overwhelmed during a conflict, hit the pause button and call a timeout.
Take a break for at least 20 minutes (or more if necessary) to let yourself calm down. Use that time to practice deep breathing exercises, to pray and engage in some self-reflection with God (Psalm 139:23-24).
This teaches your children that it’s ok to take some time to figure out what they’re thinking and feeling about a conflict. It teaches them effective self-soothing skills when they’re upset. And finally, it teaches them to go to the Lord when they’re in distress for mercy and help in their time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
“The seeds you are planting in your children’s life today will take root…You may not see the fruit right now. You may not feel like anything you are teaching them is making a difference. Your job is not to do the growing and blossoming, that’s the Lord’s job. Your job is simply to plant seeds of truth in your child’s heart.” (Sarah Beth Marr)
I’ll close by passing on to you what we taught our oldest children once the youngest was born: “Remember, little eyes are always watching. Little ears are always listening.” What are your children seeing, hearing and learning from you? Make sure those not-so-little life lessons they are catching from you are the right ones. Because by doing so you’ll not only bring life back into your marriage, but your children will learn how to establish and thrive in their own healthy, life-giving relationships the rest of their lives.
Alisa Grace ('92) serves as the co-director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships where she also co-teaches a class called "Christian Perspectives on Marriage and Relationships." While she speaks and blogs regularly on topics such as dating relationships, marriage, and love, she also loves mentoring younger women and newly married couples, speaking at retreats and providing premarital counseling. Alisa and her husband, Chris, have been married over 30 years and have three wonderful children: Drew and his wife Julia, Natalie and her husband Neil, and their youngest blessing, Caroline.