During a lull in the dinnertime conversation, my partner looks at his plate and says, “This chicken tastes fowl.” Our kids giggle. It’s a poultry-themed pun that I’ve heard from him more times than I can count, but instead of rolling my eyes or groaning about his goofy sense of humour like I truly want to at times, I jump in with a pun of my own, “I think we’re clucky to have such a tasty meal.”
My occasional quip is just one way that I show our kids I love my partner just the way he is, silly dad jokes and all. It’s moments like these that demonstrate we’re happy together more effectively than when they hear us say “I love you” to each other.
“Modelling is ‘everything’ in parenting,” says Carla Fry, a registered psychologist and director of the Vancouver Psychology Centre in West Vancouver. “As parents, what we say to our kids in terms of pep talks, heart-to-hearts and lectures isn’t nearly as powerful as how we live day to day in front of our kids.”
Our kids learn from our healthy relationships, and they may also copy unhealthy or toxic behaviours in their own future relationships. Sadly, children who are exposed to abusive relationships or domestic violence are also at increased risk of being in abusive relationships themselves.
What messages about coupledom and healthy relationships do you send your children? We asked experts how to turn relationship dysfunction into a better dynamic for the whole family. Here are six lessons about some of the most important things your kids could learn about happy couples.
If you’re neat and your partner is sloppy, saying demeaning things like “Ugh, you left a mess again?” in front of your kids shows that you’re not OK with their lifestyle choices. Letting the clutter pile up here and there without comment shows that you’re more accepting of who they are. Or perhaps you like to be punctual but your partner is always running a few minutes late. Acceptance is understanding that they will get there when they get there and being OK with it. In this sense, acceptance means lowering your expectations and letting go of your “ideal” model.
When you demonstrate that you accept your partner’s quirks and habits (or tendency to make puns) instead of trying to get them to change, you show your kids that it’s OK to be yourself without fear of being judged by others.
“It’s very powerful for a child to observe non-judgment and acceptance in a relationship,” says Fry, co-author of Gratitude & Kindness: A Modern Parents Guide to Raising Children in an Era of Entitlement. “We want our kids to see that we think through our choices—in this case, weighing how much we love and respect our partner versus how irritated we might be with our partner’s quirky behaviour when they make choices that are different than ours. We want them to see that we purposely choose to let things go or not campaign the other to change and be more like we want them to be.”
Do you chatter over dinner or giggle over old memories together? Or are there awkward silences when you’re together, where you choose to spend most of your time at home separately? Even if you do spend much of your time independently, you could still make those times when you are together count more. The parental relationship isn’t the only model your children will learn from, but your kids will notice whether or not you enjoy each other’s company and may base their future relationships on your dynamic, like choosing someone that they really don’t have much in common with as their partner. Even when life feels overwhelming on hectic weeknights, showing interest in each other and treating each other with kindness demonstrates friendship.
“I think it’s really important to show our kids how important it is to get along, even when we’re under stress,” says Natasha Sharma, a Toronto-based psychologist and author of The Kindness Journal: 6 Minutes a Day to Your Happiest You. “You may not always be in love with your partner, but if you truly like them, even through the fighting, it’s that unconditional ‘like’ that’s important.”
Do you kiss, hug, hold hands or even playfully grab each other’s butts when the kids are around to express affection? It’s healthy for children to see their parents sharing loving gestures because it can help them understand how they might act in adult relationships one day—as long as you keep your actions appropriate. Make sure that your gestures are innocent enough when young eyes are watching—leave groping for the bedroom. My partner and I hold hands during family game night and cuddle while everyone watches movies together, which demonstrates our love for each other without veering toward the hot and steamy.
“There are no hard-and-fast rules about G-rated playful gestures between parents,” says Fry. “Kids will typically let their parents know what their comfort level is by saying something or through squirmish body language.”
You teach your kids to say “please” and “thank you,” but do you and your partner remember to say thanks for the things you do for each other? Instead of taking each other for granted, show that you’re grateful for chores and favours, big and small. Your kids will recognize that you appreciate each other and may realize that they should seek out partners who are helpful and appreciative. Not only that but gratitude can improve the quality of your relationship. My partner and I still thank each other for small gestures, like washing pots and holding doors open. Getting thanked makes me feel special, which encourages me to continue doing nice things, and being thankful makes me realize that I’m lucky to have someone who is helpful and thoughtful.
“Saying thank you to your partner is a sign of affection too,” says Sharma. “Everything we do is a choice, from changing dirty diapers and taking out the trash to washing dishes and helping kids with their homework. When we thank them for everyday things, it can have a huge impact.”
You may be busy running a household and raising a family, but you’re never too busy to thank your partner for something he has done for you, even if it’s something he normally does.
“There’s really no wrong way to show appreciation,” says Sharma. “But if a negative-guilt or shame-inducing zinger gets tagged onto a grateful comment, like ‘Thanks for finally cleaning out the gutters; maybe now we won’t have roof problems this year,’ it sends the wrong message.”
When you were a kid, your parents may have divided chores along gender lines—your mom may have cooked and cleaned, while your dad mowed the lawn, took out the trash or drove for family outings. Today, couples tend to split responsibilities more evenly, based on personal likes and dislikes or skills, rather than stick to stereotypes. But what if you love to cook and hate highway driving? Will your kids think moms always cook and dads do all the driving? (Obviously, not all couples with kids fall into these stereotypical gender roles.) Should you get behind the wheel for the occasional road trip to prove something to your children? What you choose to do is a personal decision, but your kids will learn something from your behaviour, so be mindful of any messages your actions may have.
“I think it comes from a place of ‘Hey, this is just how it works for our family and our house,’ rather than ‘This is the expectation and I’m doing this mindlessly and unconsciously because this is all I saw growing up,’” says Sharma. “You could say, ‘This is just the way we choose to do it.’ ‘Choose’ is a very powerful word. Make it more about ‘This is how it works for us, but there are lots of different ways you can do this.’”
Some people avoid arguing in front of their kids all together because they worry that fighting can be upsetting. But experts agree that it’s healthy, normal and helpful for kids to see their parents argue. Doing it calmly and productively teaches kids that adults can disagree and work together to resolve their differences, which gives them a good model for solving their own relationship disputes one day.
For example, if one parent is angry that the other bought an expensive item without consulting them first, it would probably be hard to get that partner to return the item. However, it might be resolved if the upset parent asks the other parent to agree that anything purchased over a certain value should be run by the other partner in the future to make sure that both partners have a say in how the family money is spent.
“Let your kids see you disagree without rage, name-calling, shaming or bringing up past problems,” says Fry. “Throw in an apology or two and a hug at the end and it changes the whole relationship landscape for your kids.”
For the remainder of our pun-filled chicken dinner, my partner and I asked each other what happened that day, held hands, cleared the table together and thanked each other for cleaning up. Our kids didn’t think anything remarkable was happening because they’ve witnessed it countless times before. And if there’s one thing I wouldn’t mind our kids taking for granted, it’s seeing and feeling what a healthy, loving relationship is really like.