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What Kids Learn from Your Marriage

happy married couple

My husband and I cook dinner together almost every night. I never thought much about this -- other than to be really, really grateful for both the collaboration and the companionship -- until one day I overheard our daughters, ages 4 and 6, playing house with their friends. Our girls had appointed themselves the parents, and their two friends were the "kids." All was going along swimmingly until it was time to prepare their imaginary meal.

"The dad doesn't cook!" laughed one of the friends, pointing to my older daughter as she popped a plastic casserole into the oven.

"Yeah, you're right," said the other.

"Yes, he does!" my daughters roared back in unison, running to me and begging me to set the record straight.

My husband and I help our daughters understand concepts like "choices" and "consequences" and reinforce positive behaviors. But in that moment, I realized that our very marriage was presenting them with a set of values and beliefs that they would go on to believe were "right," for better (as in this case) or worse.

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Turns out there is copious research to suggest that modeling -- a fancy word for behaving in a way you want others to replicate -- is a key but often overlooked component in a child's development. "Modeling takes place even before kids can understand verbal communication," explains Elizabeth R. Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist in Wexford, Pennsylvania, and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. "As parents, we so often focus on teaching verbally, but we forget the importance of our actions." And no interactions are more visible -- or powerful -- to a child than what transpires between Mom and Dad. It's not just division of labor or gender-role stuff that matters; a longitudinal study published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the quality of a child's parents' marriage had as much influence on his or her future mental and physical health and well-being as his or her own relationship with either parent.

"The most important relationship in any family is the marital one, and the best thing parents can do for their children is to love one another," explains Daniel L. Buccino, a clinical social worker and cofounder of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute. "By making the effort to value each other, parents teach their children important lessons about intimacy, conflict, and balancing work and home." Single parents, he adds, can demonstrate some of these same skills in healthy relationships with friends and family members.

We can urge our children to share or to fight fair, but the truth is that they are too busy watching every last move we make -- from the way we resolve disputes to how much quality couple time we share -- to listen to a word we are saying. This is how to use your marriage to model only the healthiest behaviors.

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Love Lesson: Show Affection

While most parents instinctively understand the importance of being affectionate with their kids, some overlook the fact that it's critical for them to see Mom and Dad being demonstrative toward each other. "Our parents' relationship is a training ground for our own," explains Melody Brooke, marriage and family therapist in Richardson, Texas. Children who grow up in a house where their parents don't show affection for each another in front of them can grow up being uncomfortable with intimacy in their own relationships, she adds.

Just as children raised in violent homes are apt to continue that cycle, kids who witness loving contact will take those lessons into their own future family. "By demonstrating appropriate, tender ways to be affectionate, we teach our children at a young age what is okay and what isn't -- which is especially important when we aren't around," explains Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, M.D., best-selling author and host of the radio show Dr. Carole's Couch. It also reinforces the idea that the world is a safe place, something children can't hear or see often enough.

It's important not to show affection with your spouse only when he's done something to make you happy. Instead, you might want to go out of your way to let your kids see you hugging your hubby when you pass him in the hall or asking him to sit with you on the couch during family movie time. "Children need to get the message that people don't have to be perfect to be loved," explains Virginia Barlow, M.D., a family-practice physician in Potsdam, New York. This means that while Dad is certainly entitled to a hearty high five when he fixes the leaky sink, it's the for-no-special-reason squeezes that ultimately mean the most. (Of course, this applies to the affection you show your children too.)

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Love Lesson: Stay Close

Surely you remember when your spouse was your top priority. You rearranged your schedules to be together, sacrificed sleep for another hour of sex, and went out of your way to perform thoughtful gestures on the other's behalf.

Then you had kids. As lovely and magical as your offspring are, their incessant demands can make focusing on your partner feel like a luxury. "It's the reality of many parents, especially moms, that the care of children leaves no energy, time, or even desire to invest in their marriage," says Sheryl Kayne, who runs parenting workshops in Westport, Connecticut. With dual careers, an endless list of extracurricular activities, and an infinite number of distractions (Facebook, American Idol), couple time often gets shelved.

The fix? Good old date night. "It requires effort to remain friends, lovers, and connected partners," insists Kayne, who believes setting up a weekly event is nonnegotiable. (If cash or child care is an issue, do date night 2010-style: Eat a civilized meal at home, then order a movie on demand after the kids are in bed.) "The relationship you build with your partner creates the foundation for your family, so you want it to be a strong one. You may think that your children will resent this time away from them, but when kids grow up knowing their parents love and make time for each other, it provides a sense of security that nothing else can."

Clearly, divergent schedules make lots of one-on-one time impossible, but showing your kids that you want to be together -- even for five minutes stolen here and there -- goes a long way.

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Love Lesson: Share Responsibilities

We all know that running a house is like running a business, and there is an endless list of responsibilities that need your constant attention -- from cooking and cleaning to schlepping to soccer/ballet/tuba practice. Even when Dad is the sole breadwinner, couples should strive for joint responsibility of the home, says Scott Coltrane, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Oregon and author of Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity: "Data show that each generation expects to share more of both financial and domestic duties."

Need something else to convince your husband of the benefits of folding the occasional load of laundry? Dr. Coltrane has studied national survey data and found that school-age children who do housework with their father are more likely to get along with their peers. They are also less likely than other kids to disobey teachers or to become depressed or withdrawn. "Seeing fathers perform domestic service teaches cooperation and democratic family values," explains Dr. Coltrane.

In our home, by doing the cooking together my husband and I have taught our daughters -- almost by accident -- that men and women can share domestic duties willingly and happily. Whereas I never made such a bold assumption about my own father (probably because I never saw him attempt to boil water), our daughters will go into the world, and into their own relationships, with this expectation.

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Love Lesson: Fight Right

Interestingly, you have another important chance to improve your children's lives whenever you and your husband aren't getting along. A recent study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has found that as long as the fighting is fair, you don't have to do it behind closed doors. "Under certain circumstances, kids benefit from seeing their parents disagreeing," says study coauthor Patrick Davies, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in New York. "If parents make progress toward resolving arguments, it may offer children a lesson on how you can come to a solution through compromise."

Dr. Lieberman takes this one step further: "Showing our children how to handle conflict effectively is one of the greatest gifts we can give them," she insists. "I have worked with numerous patients who grew up in homes where their parents never openly communicated differences. These kids 'learned' that you must always agree with your loved ones. So when they have disagreements later on in their own lives, they assume the relationship is ruined or that there's something wrong with them."

Once you've established the fair-fighting ground rules (no shouting, no walking away, no name-calling), it is critical for both parents to agree to the terms. Mastering the art of empathic listening ("You sound frustrated") works to smooth ruffled feathers and also shows respect. When you do this right, you reinforce the concept of unconditional love by showing that you can argue and still be okay.

Having a peanut gallery for a heated debate can also have a hidden advantage, I discovered recently. My husband and I were having one of those I'm-right-no-I'm-right discussions, and there was no end in sight. Our older daughter interrupted us with this nugget of wisdom: "Daddy, if you love Mommy why don't you just let her win? She can let you win next time." It was a great idea, and we told her so. Luckily for us, the modeling thing can go both ways.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

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