Several years ago, during a break in a workshop I was conducting in Baton Rouge, La., a fellow approached me and said, "After reading you, we took your advice and put our marriage first. We are now giving one another more attention than we do the kids, and as you say, the kids are doing much better than when they were the center of attention. The problem is that conflict between my wife and myself has increased dramatically. We seem to argue more and about more things than every before."
He seemed to be saying, "We've just traded one set of problems for another."
I understood his frustration because I'd been there. It's been nearly 49 years since Willie and I became parents to Eric. In the months before his birth, we had "boned up" by reading lots of parenting books. The "experts" of the day were encouraging everyone to create "child-centered families" - families in which parents and children were at eye level to one another, and parents provided self-esteem by giving children generous amounts of attention and praise.
"Oh, wow!" we said. "This is great!" As children, neither of us had been so fortunate, and we wanted the best for Eric. Both Willie and I had grown up in families in which parents were the center of attention, told children what to do, and replied "Because we said so" almost every time a child questioned the rules. Yes, we wanted the best for Eric, and that surely meant not raising him the way we had been raised.
So, down the child-centered road we went, to the tune of nearly four years of chaos. And a very long four years they were, indeed. I look back and realize that without ever intending to do so, Eric held us hostage during that entire time.
Shortly before Amy came into our lives, we turned things around. We took the reins away from Eric, positioned ourselves at the center of attention in his life, told him what to do, and started saying "Because we said so" when he questioned the rules. Oh, my God! We became our parents!
It didn't take long to straighten Eric out. In the meantime, Willie and I began arguing about everything under the sun. About the only thing that changed is that we no longer argued to win, but to listen and be heard and reach decisions we can both live with.
Without realizing it, Willie and I had used our preoccupation with Eric to avoid conflict. In the meantime, the issues that any two strong-willed people will need to work out in a marriage were swept under the rug. When we made the decision to pay more attention to the marriage than to Eric, the debt had to be paid. And paid. And paid. And when it was fully discharged, with interest, we realized 'tis easier to do regular maintenance than massive repair.
In the course of doing talks and workshops around the country, I often encounter people who claim that raising children is the hardest thing they've ever done.
Not me. Staying married for 49 years is the hardest thing I've ever done. Thank God I found out in time.
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