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The Parenting Skills You Need for Your Marriage

The other day, as I stood in front of the open freezer waiting for a dinner idea to strike, I noticed that the ice tray on top of the stack was empty. So I took it out. The second tray was empty too, as was the tray beneath it, and so on until the sixth and final tray, which held a single cube, spotted with grains of coffee. My husband had evidently been at it again.

I was gearing up for a tirade when I heard a calm, reasonable voice in the back of my mind say, "Choose your battles." I stopped short. I knew this voice; it was the voice of every parenting expert whose books I've avidly devoured since the birth of my first child seven years ago. This same voice had talked me down when my kids yowled for candy in the supermarket checkout line, screamed at the sight of the hairbrush, or flat-out refused to even try the lovely broccoli I'd cooked especially for them.

But how could my parenting gurus possibly have anything to do with what was destined to be a purely marital spat? "Choose your battles," the voice repeated as I ran cold water in one of the trays. Well, it was worth a try.

When Greg walked in the door that evening, late again, I bit my tongue and avoided any mention of ice, trays, or irresponsible husbands. And the evening turned out to be much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise.

The next day, I considered the matter in detail. Could it be that the same tactics I use on my two sons -- one in second grade, the other still in diapers -- might work on my husband as well? Would, say, a cranky toddler and a cranky 34-year-old scientist respond to the same things? Make no mistake, Greg and I get along very well --still, every relationship has its rough spots. If I could smooth them by using the child-rearing tricks I already knew by heart, so much the better. I tried -- and my successes led to one of the more enlightening weeks of my marriage.

Strategy #1: Reward good behavior

Like most parents, I'll drop everything to scream at a child who's biting his sibling yet inadvertently ignore the little angel coloring quietly in the corner. The problem comes when kids learn that naughtiness gets immediate attention, which is why advice books recommend praising behavior that pleases you. You should say, for instance, "I love how you're playing by yourself -- it makes it much easier for Mommy to fill the ice trays. When I'm finished, we'll read a story." Good behavior rewarded leads to more good behavior. But would my husband take the bait?

I decided to find out on a Saturday, one of my precious days to sleep late. At 9:30 that morning, when I staggered downstairs to the kitchen to find my older son, Zander, using his spoon as a Cheerio catapult, 10-month-old Thad elbow deep in the dog's water bowl, and my husband buried in the sports section, I took a deep, cleansing breath. "I really appreciate your letting me sleep in," I began. "The baby wakes up so much at night all week long that staying in bed on Saturdays keeps me from going insane. Thanks again for all your help."

My husband lowered his newspaper. "You're welcome," he said, looking me firmly in the eye. "You know, I wouldn't mind sleeping in occasionally myself. Maybe we could trade weekends from now on, so we both get a chance to relax."

Disaster! A few snappy retorts came to mind, but I had a sinking feeling that this particular battle was definitely better left unchosen. What I needed was another time-tested parenting strategy. Fortunately, a thousand shopping trips with a toddler in tow had taught me the very one. "Well," I answered thoughtfully, "that makes perfect sense. After all, it's only fair that -- Hey! Is that a squirrel on the bird feeder?"

A few minutes later, with Greg and Zander devising a complicated squirrel-repellent plan outside, I poured a cup of coffee, extracted Thad from the dog water, and breathed a sigh of relief. Score another point for distraction -- it never fails.

Fernanda Moore, a mom of two boys, wrote about traveling with kids for the June issue of Parenting.