Kids Need to be Needed
One of the worst things we can do to our kids is to raise them without ever asking anything of them. My kids love to remind me that none of their friends have to clean the kitchen, or do their laundry. What they don’t realize is that most of their friends’ don’t really know what their value is to the family, because their parents don’t ask anything of them.
Kids who are never needed at home never develop a sense of place and belonging in the world. They grow up thinking one of two things: Everything should be easy and done for me (entitlement); or I am not needed in the world and therefore I don’t know what makes me unique.
Most parents who don’t ask anything of their children are doing so because they don’t want to deal with the mess that comes with asking a kid to do something.
Kids whine and complain. They are like pigs. Put a pig in a stall, and it’ll find a way to get out. They constantly testing the limits of the boundaries: What is a legit boundary, what is a threat, what is a lie. When they find a weak spot, they’ll hit it over and over and over again until they get what they want. Kids want freedom (don’t we all!), but they don’t know what to do with freedom unless they’ve been taught.
Setting your kids up for success depends on how much responsibility you teach them. Parents teach responsibility by giving them responsibilities. By telling them that they are a valuable member of the family. By telling them that their actions impact more than just themselves.
The best thing we can do for our kids is give them a constructive space to fail.
Just One Step
I often get the question, “what can I do to change my relationship with wife/friend/co-worker?” (This usually means – “how can I change the other person?”)
The answer to the first question is really simple: Just take one step.
One small act of kindness.
One gift of a compliment.
One of their favorite candy bars given with a small note of gratitude.
One sacrifice or service.
One blessing in spite of whatever happened.
One step of forgiveness.
One apology with follow through.
Now, this doesn’t mean that things will turn around immediately, but if you take that one small step every day (yes! every day), and do it faithfully, the relationship will change.
And so will you.
The way we heal the wounds in our lives is to tell the story. Tell the story of your harm over and over again until you are no longer limited and harmed by what has happened. This is the essence of therapy … to become familiar with our own truths (and lies) and live honest and peaceable lives.
You cannot do this alone. We are not unbiased about our wounds, nor the words we use to describe our experiences. We need others to hear our stories, and to help us to see parts that we’d rather not see. Parts that we hate.
Untold stories (secrets) poison our hope, dreams, and relationships. Yes, there is much pain in these stories but pain is only there because there has been a fracture of relationship. Just like cold is not it’s own created thing, it is the absence of heat, so too is pain. Pain only exists because a relationship (love) has been broken.
If we cannot forgive those we hate the most (and this doesn’t mean that we have to like the person we’re forgiving), we will never be able to accept the forgiveness of others. Telling our secrets—our stories—is the process of grief, of forgiveness.
Nine Powerful Words for Preventing Relationship Wars
A couple recently asked me a question about fighting: “We’ve been together for almost 2 years and have not had a fight. What do you think about this?” My response was two-fold. First, what is your definition of a fight? Some of us think of a fight as yelling, screaming, throwing things, etc. A fight for others might be stonewalling, silent punishment, or ignoring the other person. The second part of my answer is that someone, most likely both of them, is lying. Maybe not overtly lying about something, but not fully telling the truth about where they’ve been hurt in the relationship. You can’t be in relationships for any extended period of time without hurting them, or without being hurt.
We can’t avoid hurting people, but we can prevent these hurts from turning into harms, and relationship wars. Want to know how to avoid war? Say these 9 words to the people that matter the most to you:
“I was wrong. How can I make this right?”
Don’t text it. Say it out loud. (As a side note, don’t text anything of substance — texting is too easy, impersonal, and non-vulnerable to say something important)
Don’t try to substitute those 9 words with the generic phrase: “I’m sorry” (which is usually not an apology, but a request for the offended party to be quiet. The word “sorry” means to be “sorrowful.” When we say “I’m sorry,” if it’s true, it needs to mean that “I am full of sorrow for my actions.”). Sorry is a watered down word that rarely means much in intimate relationships.
Don’t judge or shame the offended party’s hurt by telling them what you did wasn’t that big of a deal, or that they shouldn’t feel hurt.
Don’t defend your actions. Let me say that again with emphasis: DO NOT DEFEND. The moment you enter into a defense about why what you said/did wasn’t intended to hurt/be interpreted/etc, you begin the process of declaring war on the other party. The war becomes about figuring out who’s right, and who’s wrong. Defending is the quickest way to escalate a potentially peaceable situation into an all out battle.
Sometimes we people do things that are so hurtful, or harmful, that there isn’t anything we can do to make it right. Those are the situations that need patience, time, grace, and many many conversations. For example, an affair in a marriage cannot be made right in any short amount of time. But over an extended period of time, forgiveness can occur and then reconciliation happens. It is never the offender’s prerogative to dictate the amount of time forgiveness takes.
As with anything in life, if our intention (known or unknown) is control, manipulation, or self-protection, we can abuse the goodness of a phrase like “I was wrong, how can I make it right” and turn it into a way to get something we want.
Admitting you’re wrong is humbling, but it is endearing to the person your have wronged. Asking how you can, if possible, make right the wrong makes you an ally of the person you’ve hurt, not an enemy.
Making Room in Your Family
Earlier this fall I was asked to share some practices and habits our family does that help to make room for relationships. So much of family life is dictated by events and schedules that we often miss out on relationship building with our spouse or kids. Here are a few of the ideas I shared. Disclaimer: by no means does my family have it figured out, rather we are figuring it out as we go. Our kids are all under 12, so I expect these ideas to expand/evolve as our kids grow up.
We think of making room in our family in two sections: Work/school week, and weekend.
During the school week we attempt to eat together as a family as often as possible. We don’t allow technology or other distractions (books, TV, toys, iPods, phones, etc) to be at the table and we try to have conversations about our day. It usually begins with discussing our high and lows. It almost always includes at least one of our four kids trying to sabotage our efforts. I did the same thing as a kid, so I can’t blame them. Conversations are “boring,” as my kids put it.
We, my wife and I, limit our personal technology use. We try not to use technology (tv, phones, etc) while the kids are awake during the “school nights.” It’s really easy to want to come home, turn on the TV and check-out. The “screen” has become the biggest influencers of relationships.
For the kids, there is no tv, no video games, or other technology use on school nights. This helps the kids to focus on the homework but also allows for us as parents to play or relate to them in whatever it is they have going on.
On the weekend:
We don’t police tech use on Saturday. It’s the day to play video games, watch a cartoon in the morning, and let the kids be kids in this modern day and age. Surprisingly, whenever we ask the kids to turn their iPods off on the weekend, they rarely complain. They intuitively know that too much technology is not a good thing.
We have made Sunday until Noon our time of rest. We generally stay in bed and have all the kids with us after they wake up until breakfast. We lounge around together in our pj’s, reading, playing board games, legos, or something else that is open for everyone (Our kids range from 3-11 with one girl and 3 boys).
Sunday mornings are the few hours of the week that Stephanie and I feel the most present and available with our kids. It’s my favorite time of our week because there are no agendas, the kids know we’re not doing anything outside of being together as a family.
Lastly, one of our favorite practices together is sitting by a fire. We have the benefit of a big backyard that allows us to build a great campfire. Usually 2-3 times a month during the spring and fall we are outside sitting around the fire together. It is probably the single most influential relational time that we have together as a family. The fire sparks so many conversations and openness between all of us. The fire is one of those things that unites people. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but it slows us all down.
The main idea we have come up with for our family is the limiting of technology. There are very few places we humans can go where technology is not surrounding us. If you as a parent don’t do anything else with you kids but eat dinner together, and limit their technology use, you’ll be in rare company.
Secret Decoder Rings
My siblings and I would always fight over who got the toy out of the cereal box. It even became a sly game of determining where the toy was inside the bag without pulling the bag out of the box or in digging around inside. There were rules our parents setup to keep things fair (which in a family with 6 kids is next to impossible). There was sheer joy when you’d be the one to pour the toy into your bowl, which was supposed to be the only legit way of gaining possession (It will come as no surprise to hear that we found ways around that idea).
Most of the time, marriages start out like the pursuit of that toy. We find ways to be together. We spend time crafting ideas and ways to be creative in our pursuit of the prize. We get euphoric and that incredible rush when we finally get what we’ve been pursuing. Once we’ve gotten what we want, we often don’t really know what to do with it. So much of life is about anticipation, the pursuit, and the chase; and marriage is no different.
A couple I was recently counseling highlighted this dynamic. They explained how much coasting they had done in their relationship, that 18 years later they woke up to realize how much distance there was. The husband explained that his wife needed a secret decoder ring to interpret all of his jumbled communication. She, of course, did not have that ring and thus their communication was stagnant.
It was true for them, and will be for many other marriages: Without persistent work, couples will eventually lead separate lives losing valuable insights and connection with their spouse. In the 10+ years I’ve been working with couples, I’ve seen that it doesn’t take much to throw off the equilibrium of a relationship.
It’s easy to see that a disabled family member, death of a child, or the loss of work could be highly disruptive to a relationship, but those are not the real cancers of relationships. The real cancers are the unspoken everyday fouls made with one another that do not get the attention they need.
Effort is something we reserve for what is most valuable and precious in our lives. My guess is that if someone were to visit the homes of a stale or cancerous relationship, they would see television, social media, work, and kids as the main areas that the majority of effort is spent.
Rarely do I interact with couples where I hear of regular consistent time spent together away from the easy distractions of life. This is true at my office, but also in my own social circles. The sad truth is that couples just don’t spend the time together needed to sustain their relationship.
Sure, it’d be lovely to have a secret decoder ring to find out what the other person is really saying. Unfortunately, this ring would make the relationship worse. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who’s always right, or who knows all the answers. This would feel more akin to a relationship between a child and parent than that of a marriage. The old adage is true: We get out of life what we put into it. If you put nothing into marriage, you’ll likely get nothing in return.
Two Stances in Building Relationships
Sometimes I consider myself a golfer, and regardless of how well I play, I really enjoy the sport. I’ll play 10-15 times a year, and there are occasional holes where I think that I am a decent player. One of my main complaints about this as a hobby is the amount of time that it takes away from my wife and kids. I’m typically limited to vacation golf, 9-holes after work, or the rare tee time early Saturday morning with a friend.
A few weeks ago I asked Stephanie, my wife, to go play golf with me for our weekly date. She is not a golfer, but she got really excited about getting to drive a golf cart, and doing something different on our date night. We had a blast together. I felt loved that she’d want to spend time with me doing something I really enjoy, she felt loved that we’d been adventurous on our date night. It was a win-win.
It later occurred to me how important it is for us to have something we can do together that is beyond our day-to-day lifestyle. We had kids within the first 2 years of marriage, and our normal interactions quickly swayed to become kid-centric. Part of what was so nice about playing golf that evening was that we were able to spend time together in a very different setting. We usually relate and date face-to-face, but playing golf was a shoulder-to-shoulder experience.
Men typically build relationships through doing things alongside another person. In a shoulder-to-shoulder setting, both parties are next to each other facing a common goal, problem, or activity. We usually need a sport, event, or job to make a connection with someone. Not that it always happens this way, but need shared experiences to deepen relationships. One of the reasons for this is our capacity for intimacy. While we have the same need and capacity as women, it usually takes a longer time to develop.
Patricia Love and Steven Stosny in their book How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It explain research that proves male babies have a harder time holding the gaze of their mother than do female babies. There’s an intensity to intimacy that men have a difficulty with in large doses. Women, however, typically build relationships face-to-face. This face-to-face setting means that sitting across from one another in a living room is the only context needed for relationships to happen. Experiences bring women together as well, but they don’t need an event or sport in order to connect.
It’s pretty typical, perhaps even a bit cliche’, for a couples’ date night to be dinner and a movie. The reason this works so well is that it addresses both types of relational experiences: Dinner is face-to-face, and the movie is shoulder-to-shoulder. It is really important for couples to tend to the relational needs of both the husband and the wife. This may seem like a fairly simple idea, but the practice can become challenging over time.
This is an important concept for couples to understand. Men and women process relationships and intimacy differently. The quality of time spent together needs to be rationed to both his and her relational needs. I’m a huge advocate of consistent date nights for couples. Creating experiences that allow for both the fact to face and should to shoulder will go a long way in keeping both relational needs addressed.
(Article originally published at Start Marriage Right)