An Episcopal minister and family coach, David Code suggests that parents who focus first on maintaining a strong marriage end up having happier, better-adjusted children than those who make their kids their top priority.
"The truth is, we often find it easier to be with our kids than our partners," Code said in an interivew. "This seems child-friendly, but we don't realize we're using our kids as an escape from our spouses."
Code says that his new book, To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First, was born out of frustration. "Couples asked me to save their marriage when they already had one foot in the lawyer's office," he remembers. "Parents wanted me to fix their kidís problem when it was obvious to me the child couldnít help acting out because of the highly anxious household she was living in."
"I wrote this book as preventive medicine," he says. "This book is for families who are doing fine, and want to stay that way."
Married for 14 years and the father of a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, Code says that the idea of a conflict-free marriage is a myth. "Most couples believe that if they donít fight much, then they donít have relationship problems," he said. But when partners don't address issues directly, they end up avoiding the problems -- and each other. "We turn to our electronic screens, work long hours, shuttle our kids, co-sleep with our kids, or we make up excellent reasons why we never have sex anymore."
The avoidance leads to tension and anxiety, which in turn can cause all sorts of problems for children. "You can't hide the tension in a marriage, because kids pick up on everything." Code said. "Parents don't realize they are off-loading their anxiety onto their kids, and then kids act-out or develop [medical or emotional] symptoms."
The solution seems counterintuitive.
"To raise healthy kids, simply put your marriage first and your children second," Code suggested. (To read my entire interview with Code, including his tips on how to keep a good marriage from going bad, click here.)
"Here's the biggest myth of parenting: The more attention we give our kids, the better they'll turn out," Code said. "Where are the results? Studies show todayís parents spend more time with their kids, and yet today's kids don't seem happier, more independent or successful. They seem more troubled, entitled and needy."
Unlike children and their demands, "Our marriages are important, but not urgent. So we neglect to feed and water our marriages, which die so slowly and quietly that we don't even realize our mistake until it's too late," Code explained. "But not only do we lose our marriages, we set a poor example for our children's future marriages, and we also create highly-anxious households where our kids soak up that anxiety and then act out."
Code is not saying that the needs of the spouse outweigh those of the child. "I don't see it as either/or," he said. "I see it as setting priorities that benefit everyone in the long run, even if they don't recognize it at present."
By focusing on the marriage first and the children second, parents can also avoid another pitfall: overparenting, a.k.a. "helicopter parenting."
"The definition of overparenting is doing for your child what your child can, and should do, for herself," Code says. "We think this is child-friendly, but that couldn't be further from the truth. We over-protect and over-praise our little darlings until they believe they truly are the center of the universe. They learn no skills in teamwork or cooperation, and their future bosses and spouses won't be able to stand them."
Code admits to having done his share of helicopter parenting. "Before [writing the book], I was not even aware of how much helicopter parenting I was doing, or the damage it was doing to my kids," he says. "Today, I am more self-aware. I still do plenty of helicoptering, but I catch myself sooner and do less harm to my kids."
In most families today where the kids are the top priority, maintaining the marriage is low on the list. But even small changes -- talking about both the highlights and the "lowlights" of your day, going for a walk together (baby monitor in hand, if necessary) after the kids are in bed instead of watching TV, and reinforcing your bond with your partner through intimacy -- can make a big difference in the long run.
"It's not about going from chaos to perfection," Code says. "It's about just five percent improvement. Over a lifetime, that five percent improvement could make the difference between your child graduating from college, getting divorced, or raising a child with mental illness."
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat You can read her entire Q&A with David Code here.