My wife said something the other day that made me laugh and think. She noticed something around the house that needed fixing or cleaning or throwing out (I can't remember what it was exactly, for the reasons you'll read in a minute). When I looked blank (which is common), she said, "You mean you never noticed that it needed (fixing or cleaning or throwing out)?!" Needless to say, I hadn't noticed something that so obviously needed fixing or cleaning or throwing out. Ever. Not once. Didn't cross my mind. Completely under my radar.
That's when she said what we've both known for 27 years of marriage: "In combination we think of most everything, but we never both think of the same things." The list in my brain of things to do, worry about, and discuss with Sara is completely different from the list in her brain of things to do, worry about, and discuss with me. As a result, we surprise each other a lot. "Really, you think the door needs refinishing? Which door? Why?" And then, inevitably, after she shows me the door she's been obsessing over, I say something lame (but true) like, "But it looks fine to me..."
So what makes us still compatible? How have we reconciled our lists? After all, I never consider the way the dog looks before out-of-town company arrives at our home, but that's exactly when grooming the dog soars to the top of Sara's list. She doesn't stress about the kids' final deadline for college classes like I do. I never notice when my shirts develop yellow armpit stains; she does. She also vacuums the inside of the van, which I would never think of. I can't figure out how to turn on the cable TV; she knows how to reboot the whole house. My car leaks oil, so I put a big piece of cardboard down to protect the garage floor; Sara changes the spark plugs and replaces the leaky gasket (or pan or belt or whatever) to stop the leak. I'm thrilled she plastered the hole in the ceiling; she's upset because the patch doesn't look smooth. I didn't notice. "You mean you never noticed?!"
Our kids know there's a distinct distribution of labor between their parents. They know exactly whom to call with any particular problem. I never hear about clothes, checking accounts, credit cards, or car problems. Maybe that's because they all start with C, but I think it's actually because I don't really know anything about those things. Sara never hears about tests, term papers, thesis defense, or trades the Broncos or Rockies just made. Maybe that's because they all start with T, but I think it's actually because the kids need something to talk about with me after Sara takes care of all the important stuff in their lives. The kids also know exactly whom to ask about fun or expensive things—they know I'll be a killjoy, party pooper, and wet blanket about them. Sara's in charge of fun; I'm in charge of setting limits and saying no. That's because Sara is fun, and I'm practical.
Thankfully, on the Big Items, we're on the same page. Always. Our lists are a perfect match. We share our priorities for family, health, faith, core values, and dreams for our kids. And I've concluded that Big Items are what make people compatible. But it would sure help if we were better at noticing the things on each others' lists.
It's just as important to notice our kids' lists, too. The high-priority items on their lists may not even make it on to your list; events and crises in your kids' lives may seem trivial to you, but they are front-page news for your kids. (The reverse is certainly true, too.) But compatibility with your kids is still possible. This New Year, resolve to respect your kids' lists; if something's important to them, even if you never would have thought about it, make it important to you, too. Share everyone's accomplishments of the day at dinner, and marvel about your kids' plans for tomorrow. Talk about what's bothering them or exciting them, even if you have to work hard to show your profound interest. It's also important to remind your kids that grown-ups have priorities and responsibilities kids may never notice or understand, and they need to respect your list, too. But when explaining your list, never minimize what your kids think about, worry about, or want to discuss.
And always make sure the Big Items in your family's life are shared on everyone's lists—ultimately, that's what makes parents and kids compatible.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
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