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What Children Learn from Their Parents' Marriage

By Jane Tuttle
Lawrence KS USA
Report from 2001 LLLI Conference
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 176

Children are incredibly quick at learning about relationships, said Dr. Judith Siegel, an associate professor at New York University and a marriage and family therapist. She began her presentation by reviewing how children observe their surroundings and draw conclusions about what is important in their culture.

Children are always observing their parents' marriage and making inferences about what adult intimacy is. When parents stay connected as lovers and friends, their children learn this is how married adults treat one another. If a child sees parents holding hands as they walk down the street, the child will grow into an adult who sees handholding in public as a normal sign of affection. Imagine the child who marries someone who does not have that same frame of reference!

Siegel's book, What Children Learn from Their Parents Marriage, has more information than she could cover in the two-hour Conference session. First, she spoke on the need for respect in a marriage. Parents should be thoughtful about what they say about their partner in the presence of children. Parents may say things to or about their partners that are hurtful, either in the heat of anger, or while talking to others. Adults may think children are playing noisily in the other room, but the children might be listening and are not capable of distinguishing what is said in anger or frustration from what their parents feel.

It is important for parents to make their marriage a priority. In a fastpaced world, it is easy to put career, childcare, and even personal time before the marriage. Siegel suggested that dependence in a marriage is a statement of trust and strength. Couples who use one another as a resource and for emotional support are teaching their children that all problems can be solved. Intimacy means that partners can lean on one another and be a support for one another.

Conflicts in a marriage are to be expected. She suggested that parents work on negotiating skills. When parents negotiate in front of their children, they help children see that differences are healthy and necessary for creating balance in life. There is no better way to give your child the tools to build healthy, strong relationships than to raise them in an environment where parents practice listening respectfully, acknowledging differences, and working thoughtfully to negotiate solutions to problems.

Theres a difference between negotiating a conflict and fighting in anger. Research shows that children are negatively affected by parents' anger. When parents can create a home where children are no longer worried about conflict and see differences as a normal part of life, the parents have given their children a great gift.

No marriage is perfect, but most do many positive things that children see. Children should see affection between the parents. Not sexual affection, but true affection for one another. They need to see friendship between the parents: shared interests as well as thoughts. Children should hear parents praise each other.

Dr. Seigel's presentation was practical in approach. At the end of the session, she took questions from the audience. She suggested to one questioner that often conflicts about parenting choices originate in similar conflicts in the relationship between the adults. Many people who attended this session loved it and took away concrete ideas to use in their own lives.

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