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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.

Strategy #2: Keep It Brief

Children, as everyone knows, are absentminded, self-centered little creatures. Getting them to pull even a fraction of their weight is an uphill battle, and it usually involves cajoling, reminding, threatening, and nagging --all of which they effortlessly tune out. That's why parenting pros recommend a terse approach. When reminding kids to do their chores, you'll get better results if you simply say, "Laundry. Hamper."

I don't mean to imply that Greg's a forgetful, self-involved slacker. He's really not. But I did think that the baby gates I'd brought home several weeks ago, and mentioned at regular intervals since, might better help our younger son resist the siren song of the staircase if they were actually installed. I decided I needed to set the stage for terseness. I put the gates, still in their boxes, right where I wanted them to go. I fetched the appropriate screwdrivers and laid them alongside. Still, I felt a little funny barking orders at my husband.

"Um," I said as I fished the baby out of his high chair after lunch. "Baby gates? Today? Install?"

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I went upstairs an hour later. The gates were up, the boxes were gone, and the tools had been put away. Wow.

Strategy #3: The Time-Out

Still buoyed from Sunday's success, I had high hopes for the time-out. I didn't have to wait long to try it.

Monday began badly. I had foolishly permitted Thad to fiddle with our bedside clock during a diaper change on Sunday, so the alarm didn't go off. Zander missed the school bus, Greg left in a hurry, and I missed my morning opportunity to shower and collect my wits. I spent the day feeling harried and unproductive, and by the time my husband got home (37 minutes later than he promised -- but who's counting?), I had managed to feed and bathe the kids, but that was it. The house was a disaster. There was nothing for us to eat. "Where have you been?" I hissed.

Things went downhill from there. I mentioned loudly that my day had been so hectic that I hadn't even had a chance to shower. Greg countered by listing the many ways in which his day had been hectic, and he wondered whether I'd managed to accomplish anything during his absence. I pointed out that a bracing shower in the morning often helped a person feel like accomplishing things. My husband remarked that in a household that always runs late, a person with places to go can hardly be expected to stick around while another person indulges showering whims. I took exception to the implication that the running late was my fault. He pointed out that it wasn't his idea to let the baby play with the alarm clock. "Oh, sure, blame the baby," I said bitterly. "Probably it was the baby's fault you were thirty-seven minutes late getting home tonight too."

"I wasn't late," he said, wounded. "I said I'd be home around seven."

"Around seven is not seven thirty-seven!" I cried. "Go to your room!"

Greg stared at me. Oh, dear. In my excitement over my great baby-gate success, I'd forgotten to consider whether the time-out needed modifications for adult application. With all the dignity I could muster, I turned on my heel and marched up the stairs to my office. If I couldn't send my husband to his room, I'd just have to go to mine, shut the door -- and let him cope with feeding the kids and getting them both to bed.

An hour went by. First one child went silent, then the other. The aroma of simmering garlic wafted from the kitchen. Finally, there was a timid knock on my office door, and my husband appeared with a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. "I'd wave a white flag, but my hands are full," he said agreeably.

Strategy #4: Quid Pro Quo Quality Time

On Tuesday night, though he got home late again, my husband was chatty and cheerful at dinner, which was nice. After the kids were asleep, he was still chatty and cheerful, following me around the house, suggesting we play Scrabble -- which was not so nice. Call me terrible, but I didn't want to play Scrabble. What I wanted, more than anything, was to climb into a steamy tub and read a magazine, in total silence, until my toes wrinkled and the water cooled.

But I didn't want to make poor Greg feel bad, and I certainly didn't want to start a long discussion about why his ideas didn't sound fun to me, why I'd rather he just leave me alone. First I tried my old friend distraction. I feigned interest in TV, mentioned that his best friend had left a voicemail, even tried to foment a dessert craving that would necessitate a quick run to the grocery store. He didn't bite.

Then I remembered another trick from the parenting books: To earn a minute or two of peace, drop everything and give the kids your undivided attention for, say, a quarter of an hour. When time's up, they might entertain themselves for a few nanoseconds, so you can sneak off and pursue your own interests.

It worked. Fifteen minutes of quality time bought me an epic bath-and-magazine session, and by the time I stumbled into bed, my husband was fast asleep. (I won't tell you what exactly we did during those 15 minutes. After all, this is a family magazine.)

Strategy #5: Creative discipline

On the final day of my experiment, I wanted to try something more serious. Time-outs, distraction, and the like may work well, but they're -- let's face it -- more tricks than permanent solutions. And my husband's habitual lateness was becoming a problem. While I was happy to let the empty ice trays slide, that final 40 minutes of overtime tacked on to my already lengthy day alone with the kids was really starting to rankle.

The books call it creative discipline: Instead of punishing a resentful child, you're supposed to sit down with him after a serious or chronic infraction and figure out together how he should atone and, ultimately, change the behavior. Frankly, it sounded awful (I loathe confrontation), but gritting my teeth through another week of lateness sounded worse. On Wednesday, I screwed up my courage.

I tried to describe the way the evening drags for a parent who stays home all day with young children. I explained how demoralizing it was to psychically gear up for his arrival at a certain time, only to have that time come and go with nary a sign of him. I reminded him that the issue isn't really what time he returns, but what time he says he'll return. A husband who predicts a 6:30 arrival but walks in at 7:00 will get a chillier reception than one who arrives, as promised, at 8:00.

My husband was mute. "Use your words," I encouraged. He shot me a dirty look -- I'd forgotten he reads parenting books too -- but then explained how difficult it is to figure out exactly what time he can leave, given the nature of scientific research. Sometimes experiments don't work or take longer than planned. Sometimes a student needs help as he's walking out the door. "Sometimes," he said, "I think I tell you the time I'd like to be home, and I'm as disappointed as you are when I'm not."

Well, despite our good intentions, I'm sure my husband will still come home late and I'll still be irritated when he does. On the other hand, creatively disciplining felt a whole lot better than arguing, and at the end of the night, I felt oddly forgiving instead of resentful. I even felt fonder of Greg than before.

So, did the week of using parenting skills in my marriage work? Absolutely. For one thing, it was tremendously refreshing to see these strategies actually get results. (Grown men are amazingly more responsive than children, I thought one night as Greg picked up all the towels while Zander ignored my exhortations to get out of the tub.) It turns out that trying to find the best way to relate to your kids (who certainly put all kinds of new stresses and strains on your relationship) can actually help you relate to your spouse. Will I persist with the experiment? Definitely. As a wise man told me just the other day, scientific research can take longer than you think to complete. We may never get this whole thing exactly right, but the results are promising.

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