As parents, we are constantly faced with new challenges along the developmental process. We are "forced" to find a solution to bedtime resistance, potty training, tantrums, etc. So we read books, we learn strategies and techniques. We do everything possible not to "ruin" our children, to do it better than our parents did with us. We want them to grow up with healthy self-esteem, a love for Judaism, good character traits, etc.
But somewhere along the way, we have forgotten about the most important ingredient in successful parenting: a successful marriage.
There are two ingredients to raising wonderful children: 50 percent prayer and 50 percent peace in the home (shalom bayis). – Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky
Here are three reasons why a successful marriage is essential to successful parenting:
1) Modeling: The way we act towards our spouse has a direct effect on our children. If you were ever surprised to hear your child repeat something they overheard you say, you know what I mean. Children look up to parents as models for how to be in this world. If kids witness parents yelling at each other or making demands and not saying "please" and "thank you," it is quite likely that they will engage in relationships in a similar fashion.
While we may prefer to think that they learned it at school or a friend's house, the necessary first step is self-reflection. Think for a moment about all of your children's undesirable behaviors, and ask yourself if you and your spouse treat each other that way. We can verbally teach our children what is "proper," but if we do not model that behavior and practice what we preach, they will pick up on our insincerity and not be receptive to our wishes.
You are not only assisting them in their current interpersonal relationships, you are ingraining in them the proper traits that are necessary for a healthy marriage one day. Modeling is the most obvious way your marriage affects your children.
2) The Family System: While the effect of marital strife on a family is quite obvious in a home where the marriage is in crisis, it may be less apparent in a home where a "cold peace" exists. Although the parents may not see it, kids are brilliant. Even when a marriage remains intact, kids can detect there is something unhealthy in the relationship.
This affects a child's sense of self, as children need to feel secure in their home environment. We often see children acting out. Stopping the behavior is not the ultimate solution, because their actions are telling us something about the system as a whole. We know of plenty of families that have their "problem child." Perhaps the child has been diagnosed with some "disorder," or is not necessarily behaving in the way we want them to. It is quite easy to view the child as the problem or the "identified patient." What takes more maturity is to look at the family as a whole, starting with the parents.
Is your marriage vibrant or just tolerable?
Even if your marriage is livable, is it vibrant? Peace in the home, shalom bayis, does not mean the absence of conflict. Shalom is opposing forces working together in harmony. It is a sense of wholeness that allows for a life filled with blessings and joy.
When parents build a strong foundation for the home, they will find themselves having a much easier time as parents. And while your children may act out on occasion, you will be much better equipped to deal with them. How many arguments stem from how to parent a child? One parent feels the spouse is the enabler, while the enabler feels the other one is too harsh. When a husband and wife learn how to be in relationship with each other, to talk to each other, and to understand each other, they will be able to form a united front as they parent their children. Otherwise, there will always be one parent who feels that his or her efforts are being undermined.
3) Do No Harm: Despite our best intentions, we inevitably will harm our children. We are only human and cannot possibly know and/or meet all of their needs. This means we will likely not give them all of the love, visibility, confidence, etc., that they need. Our job is to do our best. One way to minimize the damage is to become more conscious about ourselves and how we behave in relationship.
It is a fact that our children will do certain things that push our buttons. Why is it that a particular behavior that bothers you does not bother your spouse? The reason we are triggered by some things and not others is that these are areas which lie on our "growth edge." Perhaps our children remind us of our own behavior as children, which was met with negative messages from our parents. Perhaps it wasn't okay for you to cry or to feel emotions. When you see your uninhibited and vibrant child sobbing, it may trigger your own judgments about that behavior. How do you react?
Do you act from a place of consciousness, understanding the 90/10 rule – that 10 percent of anything that bothers you is the actual stimulus, and 90 percent is what it triggers in you? Or do you unconsciously pass on that same unhelpful message you received as a child? Most of us are unconsciously passing on generations of negative messages. This is one tradition we do not want to transmit to our children.
One way to become a more conscious parent is to first become a more conscious spouse. If you look closely, you may find that your children push your buttons in the same way that your spouse does. As you work together with your spouse on these global relational growth opportunities, you will be able to approach your children as a more whole and complete parent, a parent who acts consciously as opposed to reactively.
The best gift you can give your children and future generations is to work on your relationship. Good intentions aren't enough; make your marriage a priority.