Strong parental relationships build happy children

David Code, author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First, explained to Today's Parent editor, Caroline Connell, why he thinks our children need less attention and our partners more

Today’s Parent: From your book title, you think parents are paying too much attention to their kids, and not enough to their spouses.

David Code: Yeah, I’m surprised at how radical an idea this has become. Certainly neglect is not a good thing; we can all agree on that. But what we didn’t realize is that the pendulum has swung too far to the other extreme. We didn’t realize that it’s possible to pay too much attention to our kids.

I think today’s parents are trying to provide the perfect trauma-free childhood, so that their children can grow up without any of the problems that you and I take for granted. And I don’t think that’s possible. All of us suffer; suffering is part of life. So what happens when parents try to create this perfect childhood? The parents aren’t having fun; they’re anxious and exhausted. The kids aren’t having fun, they’re anxious and troubled and entitled. And they’ll grow up to have bosses and spouses who just can’t stand them.

TP: We’ve heard lots of talk about helicopter parents who are over-involved with their kids, but your take is that we’ve got to bring it back to our spouses. That’s new to me.

DC: What I’m looking for is a balance. In many families, it almost seems like we’re marrying our kids instead of our spouses. We think it’s a child-friendly, great way to go. But what we’re doing is escaping our relationships; relationships are hard, and it’s so easy to throw yourself into parenting instead. It becomes almost a flight response from your spouse, and that’s where I think the problem lies.

I’m not saying dump the kids on a nanny. But if we can put our marriages first, that’s win-win in so many ways. First of all, it recharges our batteries. I mean, we married these people for a reason — to have that kind of dependable friendship that is a support and a source of joy. If you feed and water that relationship on a regular basis, it will sustain you for life.

Second, it gets the helicopter off the kids, so they grow up with self-reliance, independence and the ability to problem-solve themselves, instead of needing mommy as entertainment director, leadership director, home-schooler, chauffeur…you name it.

Finally, we have an opportunity to set an example for our children’s future relationships. You and I both know that kids don’t learn by what we tell them; they learn by what we model. It’s incredibly important to model a healthy relationship.

TP: What do you see as the consequences for the kids when parents are over-involved in their lives?

DC: If we’re working to make our children happy, it’s kind of like a sugar high. They get this great feeling for a little while, but in the long run they turn to us to be entertained. They turn to us to tell them what to do. They become emotionally dependent.

What’s worse, when we neglect our marriages, we create anxiety in the household. Here’s how: A lot of couples worry that arguing leads to divorce. So they believe that it’s noble to “keep the peace” in their marriage. But the silent killer of marriage is not our fight response, but our flight response, and we’re not even aware that we have a flight response. Common examples of the way we flee our spouses include: avoiding touchy topics because we know they can blow sky-high; working too many hours or taking too many business trips; switching on the television; or today’s favourite — throwing ourselves into our children’s lives and becoming their best friends.

But you cannot hide the anxiety and tension in a marriage, and children pick up on everything. They soak up the stress until their little, fragile nervous systems hit overload, and then they act out or get sick. I don’t think it’s a surprise that we’ve seen a tremendous uptick in mental health and social and even physical symptoms in our children. More than 50 medical studies show a link between parental stress and childhood illness, both mental and physical.

TP: Do you worry that you’re creating a “blame the parent” framework for children’s medical disorders?

DC: That’s the question I get all the time. It’s not about blame. It’s about getting our heads out of the sand and accepting that we have more control over our children’s health than we realize. Instead of giving in to our anxiety of the moment so we can feel good right now, we need to push our children toward emotional independence because that’s what serves them best in the long run. Sure, it’s painful to realize “Oh my goodness, I’ve had a role in my child’s ailment.” But the good news is that now you have something concrete that you can do — a change of behaviour that can improve your child’s symptoms. What parent wouldn’t be willing to put up with the sting of some guilt in order to finally help her child? And even if I’m wrong, to simply reduce the anxiety and the stress of a household is going to ameliorate the child’s symptoms. So we have nothing to lose.

TP: You’re suggesting that most of us — not just parents of children with particular symptoms — could help our kids by backing off and giving them some space.

DC: Figuratively, yes. I don’t see it as a function of how much time we spend or don’t spend with our children. It’s more about how we are with our children. If you’re anxiously standing over your child, and figuratively wringing your hands, that’s what you want to start to monitor and manage.

A big part of it is learning how to notice the anxiety and the stress within you. When we’re anxious and worried about something, little things tend to bug us, and that’s what happens with our kids. “Oh look at that blemish on her face. Is that a scar?” That kind of stuff gets blown out of proportion, and we turn molehills into mountains. So the kid loses because now the kid has a big problem that she needs to be worried about. And we parents lose because we’re worried lunatics.

TP: OK, so the parents tell the children, “Mom and Dad are going to sit down and have a glass of wine together. You kids go play and, in half an hour, we’ll call you.” How does that go over with the kids?

DC: In the short term, the kids can’t see anything good about it, and they are disappointed. But then they go into that other room and they have no choice but to figure out something that’s going to entertain them. And that’s when they come up with creative games like building a fort out of the couch cushions. The kids do figure something out. They do entertain themselves.

As you focus more on your marriage, your kids will squawk at first and that’s normal. But you have to believe not only in your head, but also in your heart, that ultimately you are doing them a huge favour. They know all your buttons and they’re going to try to push them. But you say: “Well, these are the boundaries and this is how it’s going to be, and I actually don’t care that much how you feel about it.” In the long run, that’s an act of love.

It’s about building habits in your child that lead to self-reliance. Every time you force him to manage his own emotions, and every time you force him to feel the consequences of his actions, that’s a victory for your child’s future.

TP: So I decide, OK, I’m going to focus more on my spouse, on our marriage. What does that look like, in practical terms?

DC: There are a couple of things that sound tiny, but I cannot tell you the impact these have had on my own marriage.

Maybe you’ve seen those walkie-talkies that have a voice-activated button where you don’t have to press anything. You buy a pair of those and after your child falls asleep at night, you put one down beside the child. Take the other walkie-talkie with you and your spouse, and go out and just walk around in the yard. You can hear more on those walkie-talkies than if you were downstairs watching TV or talking on the phone. So there you are, the two of you, out in the yard; you’re getting a little exercise and some fresh air. You’ve created a space for intimacy — a chance to share your thoughts and feelings, talk about your dreams and your goals. Thirty minutes a day: fresh air, exercise and a marriage. It’s highly addictive.

TP: That’s amazingly simple.

DC: Yeah, and the next one’s even simpler. I call this one “highlight-lowlight.” When you come home from a busy day and both of you are changing out of your work clothes upstairs, take a moment and share the highlight of your day. Just a single moment, one of those great-to-be-alive moments.

You don’t say, “I rode my bike to work today and I enjoyed it.” You say, “As I was riding my bike to work today, I saw the fall colours, and there was one Japanese maple with the colours just so. The way the sun came through the leaves was breathtaking.” Likewise, with the lowlight, you don’t say work was boring today. You talk about “I went to get the projector for a presentation and the receptionist gave me this evil eye, as if I was hogging the projector, like I was some kind of jerk, and it really ticked me off!” It may be a petty, stupid thing, but somehow to share that with your spouse — that kind of commiserating brings you together. It’s just a moment, but it’s a moment that transforms.
TP: So you’re talking about small things; you’re not talking about a week in Paris.

DC: Nooooo. No, no, no, no. You need habits that you can work into your life. And can I give you one more? One of the biggest mistakes that we make as parents is believing that sex is optional. Sexless marriages are very much on the rise, and parents often tell me that they don’t really miss the sex. They have these great excuses like “We’re co-sleeping with our children now because that’s best for their emotional development” or “I’m so exhausted after being with the kids all day that I just don’t have the energy left.” But they don’t realize what they’re losing. Ten years from now, they’ll wake up and look across the pillow at their spouse and realize that the flame has died.

What I tell people to do is to make a weekly unbreakable appointment for sex. It’s important to just be together in that intimacy. And having an orgasm releases bonding hormones, so the more sex you have, the more sex you want to have.

I’m not talking about a miracle cure where these three things will transform your life in 24 hours. I’m talking about a small, incremental improvement, where you have nothing to lose. There is no downside to this.

TP: OK, say a couple starts to spend more mommy-daddy time, and what they find is that they’re not having fun. What happens then?

DC: Yeah, I’m a realist. I’ve been married for 14 years. I don’t have a shortcut for that one; I do have a path. I think it’s very important to cultivate a ring of friends. Also, cultivating hobbies and passions because they all cross-pollinate.

Humans are social beings to the core. The more we can get out of our isolation, the more stimulating it is to our psyches and to our creativity. So let’s say you don’t enjoy being with your spouse as much any more. Well, guess what? You can do an end run. You can spend more time with your friends and more time with your hobby. What you’ll find is that the good vibe you get from the girlfriends will transfer over to the husband, and you’ve got more to talk about with him. The good vibe that you get from the hobby, and the people you meet through that, will be more stimulating, and that will also help with your spouse.

Basically, if you and I want to raise healthy kids, we’ve got to go get a life. And I don’t just mean go get a job. Get something that fulfills us. We can have more fulfillment and enjoyment in our lives, and have a great marriage that will last even when we are empty-nesters. We produce kids who are more independent and self-reliant, and better able to get on in the world, and we also give them a great model for their own relationships.

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