We were excited to be meeting our new babysitter, a high-school senior with great references and her own car. As I showed her the house, our 9-year-old son, Aidan, tagged along.
In the kitchen, I said, "For dinner, you can make macaroni and cheese," and pointed to the box I'd left out for her on the counter.
The girl paled. "I can't cook."
"That's okay," Aidan told her. "I'll cook for us."
That was the moment when I knew my son would make a great husband one day -- the result of a secret master plan I'd been working on for years.
It started taking shape after I heard Aidan tell a kindergarten buddy, "You can just leave those toys on the floor. My mommy will clean up." His remark set my hair on fire. Never mind the fact that all kids should learn independence and responsibility. Hearing Aidan say that led me to see that I was raising a boy who might morph into a lazy husband -- one whose wife (if he was lucky enough to dupe someone into marriage) would have to nag him endlessly as if she were his mother.
Setting a good example through your own relationship will probably have the most powerful impact on what kind of husband, wife, or partner your kids will grow up to be. But it's never too soon to focus on instilling those values that foster strong relationships -- and it's easier than you'd think.
The moms complaining about their husband at the bus stop are the ones married to guys who don't pitch in. Not surprisingly, studies show that couples who split housework and parenting tasks more or less equally are happier than those who don't.
Men are doing better in the housework department -- the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research reports that the amount of housework done by women has dropped since 1976, as more women have gone to work and men have doubled their time doing chores at home. Yet there's still a gender divide. For instance, husbands create an extra seven hours a week of housework for wives -- but men spend an hour less on chores weekly after getting married.
Discussing the division of labor early in your own relationship can head off resentment and sets an example for your kids, says Jennifer Anderson, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, author of the parenting blog ourmuddyboots.com. She and her husband divide chores evenly despite the fact that she's a stay-at-home mom and he works full-time. "My kids don't have any bias about certain jobs being male or female," she says. "They know that all members of a family work as a team."
We all dread seeing couples who criticize each other about everything from snoring to driving skills. The cornerstone of a good marriage is respect for each other, and modeling that for your children gives them a better shot at forging happy adult partnerships, says Parents advisor Harley Rotbart, M.D., author of No Regrets Parenting. "We like to think that we can relax and just be ourselves at home, as long as we put on our best manners in public. But what our neighbors think about how we treat our spouse is actually a lot less important than what our kids think."
Amy Ames, of Raleigh, North Carolina, teaches her two sons how to respect others by treating her husband respectfully -- and her children too. For example, if she wants to use the family iPad and one of her sons has it, she asks for it politely rather than telling him to turn it over. "Even when my boys are with their friends, I expect them to speak and act nicely," she says. In my own marriage, my husband and I strive to stick to this simple rule: No matter how tired or cranky we are, we keep the eye-rolling and sarcastic remarks to a minimum and try to treat each other the way we'd treat our best friends.
Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed that table with the couple who doesn't speak? They just focus on their food -- either because they've run out of things to say or they know they'll fight if one of them starts a conversation. Being able to talk constructively about everything from grooming habits to mortgage refinancing is key to a good marriage. If you can air your disagreements, you have a better shot at resolving disputes -- and growing together instead of apart over time.
To help children learn to converse in a meaningful way, Dr. Rotbart offers this advice: "Teach your kids how to listen to others by listening to them." When your child comes to you with news about her friends or a toy that she wants, stay in the moment. "Don't think about the work you left at the office or the dishes you need to wash," Dr. Rotbart says. "Focus on listening to your child without interrupting. Then ask a few questions or make a comment to show her that you've paid attention and what she's said is important to you. This will help teach her to be a good listener."
It's equally crucial to teach your child how to share her thoughts instead of relying on flippant remarks or grunts. "It took me a while to realize that my older son wasn't avoiding me," says Ames. "He's just a lot like his dad, who isn't a big talker. I do carry more conversational weight in my marriage, and sometimes that's exhausting." She decided to work on her son's conversation skills in the hope that his future partner won't have the same issue she has in her own marriage. Her best solution? Car rides. "I stopped letting him take along video games in the car, and we've discovered that we actually have a lot to talk about," she says.
Ask a boy about his day at school and he'll probably say, "It was fine." Ask a girl and she'll be more likely to say that her best friend didn't sit with her at lunch, she's happy she got a part in the school play, or she's nervous about her math test. Indeed, researchers have found that men are typically less able than women to identify their emotions and empathize with others. This inequality starts early, says Susan Witt, Ph.D., professor of child and family development at the University of Akron, in Ohio. Parents tend to comfort little girls who cry but are more likely to tell sons to "man up" and stop sniveling. "Men who were taught to suppress their emotions as children often become husbands whose wives complain that they can't open up," says Dr. Witt.
How can you raise kids who'll be emotionally engaged? As always, this lesson is best learned through example. Even small things, like pointing out a cartoon character's feelings, can help your child learn to identify and talk about his own.
When I was a kid, I had a crush on Mr. Spock, the Vulcan science officer on Star Trek who struggled to contain the emotional life he inherited from his human mother. Ironically, I married my crush, in the form of a software engineer. I love my husband's intellectual agility, but I sometimes wish he acted more like a girlfriend and tuned in to my emotions the way I understand his.
I used to worry that my son would be just as apt to miss other people's emotions -- until my husband was laid off from work last summer. I was in my home office when Aidan stopped in and said, "It sure is hard for Dad to talk about his emotions, Mom."
I looked up from my computer, startled. "What do you mean?"
Aidan explained that he'd been making lunch when his dad came into the kitchen and said, "Grilled cheese, huh? That's a cheap lunch. Good thing, since I lost my job today."
"And then what?" I asked.
"Then Dad just went upstairs without saying anything else," Aidan said. "He must really be sad."
"He is," I told Aidan, "and it's good you see that. Now let's think about how to make him feel better."
Yes, I thought, as I followed Aidan upstairs, whoever loves my son years from now will be very lucky indeed. He'll do some of the cooking and cleaning, he'll treat her with respect, and he'll make great conversation. Most important of all, he'll try to understand how she feels.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.