The key to a happy family is less time with the kids and more with your partner, according to a new book.
My guilt at skipping off to the theatre with my husband and leaving our children with the babysitter was justified. On our return, we were informed that the five-year-old had pushed the three-year-old off the sofa. The three-year-old - realising that he could not match his sibling in strength - had relieved himself in a bucket, then chucked the contents over his brother's head.
"This," said the critical voice in my head, "is what you get for pursuing your own frivolous needs at the expense of your darlings. It all goes "Lord of the Flies." And yet, secretly, I felt proud. What intelligence they showed. What resourcefulness. And while I would never claim delight in a slosh of urine being been tipped over my elder boy, there was a faint, satisfying belief that he had learnt a lesson, one that, had I been there roaring, "Don't fight!", would have passed him by.
And so I, and every well-meaning but fallible parent, is rejoicing at the news that by leaving children to their own devices while we enjoy ourselves as a couple, we are enriching their lives, a theory advanced by American family therapist David Code in his book To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First.
Code believes that by suffocating children with attention while neglecting the relationship with our partner, we stifle their development. "Families centred on children create anxious, exhausted parents and demanding, entitled children," he says. "We parents are too quick to sacrifice our lives and our marriages for our kids. A good marriage sets a great example for your children's future relationships and that's a win-win for the whole family."
Indeed, we are so terrified of being selfish adults that we have forgotten that simply setting a good example is what creates a rounded, successful, happy human being. It is not the child who plays tennis and speaks Italian who is set for a fabulous life if her mother can't be civil to her father. A former acquaintance's children were shuttled from French lessons to theatre auditions to scuba-diving. Every day was an opportunity for another character-building experience. And yet, this maternal paragon encouraged her husband to use the bathroom at his gym rather than soil the ensuite. Once, he screamed at her, "Why are you always so mean to me?"
Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, agrees that modelling a healthy relationship is far more beneficial to children than "outsourcing" their development to a tutor. "Children's security and their sense of well-being are inseparable from how they view the two people that they have the most amount of confidence and trust in - their father and mother."
Even Michelle Obama keeps a weekly "date night" with Barack. I don't manage that in my marriage, and I'm sure the Obama schedule is busier than ours. It's as if we fear that, were we to allow ourselves one night off at a restaurant a deux while the babysitter lets the kids run riot, the next weekend we'd be jetting off to Bali, leaving the toddler squalling in his cot with a bottle of Coke.
Unlike me, economist Simone Sultana, mother of Misha, 11, and Maya, 6, understands the concept of balance. She describes the odd long weekend away with her husband as "rebooting".
"It completely changes how we cope with the more relentless parts of parenting and keeping a home functioning," she says. "It's important for us to remember why we are an item independently of having kids. It's also important for my son and daughter to see that their mum and dad are more than their parents and want to do things together because they love each other and are good friends."
But before you book the babysitter, psychiatrist Oliver James wants a word.
James, author of How Not To F*** Them Up, is aghast at the title To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First, and doesn't believe that you have to get "out of the house". If you wish to demonstrate to your children that you enjoy a healthy relationship with your spouse, he believes it is enough for them to see your "points of contact". (These can include "witnessing you getting happily drunk together, or having jokes together".)
When I confess that my husband and I have never had a weekend away from our children (the eldest is now seven), James says, "I think you are right to be jolly careful. Even at the age of seven or eight, if their relationship with the carer isn't that close, it can be traumatic."
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, is in favour of letting go. "The way that children have been raised in all cultures from time immemorial is that the parent gives them an enormous amount of attention in the early years, but after that, the child is handed into the extended family and the community."
As Frank Furedi says, "Children expect their mothers and fathers to be independent human beings. One of the best ways of getting your child to do something is by personal example. My son is really good at sports, and one reason is that my wife swims every morning and I go to the gym."
This, he says, sends a far more powerful message than, say, forcing your child to take tennis lessons, if he only ever sees his parents sprawled on the couch.
Sue Palmer quotes Swedish child-development expert Anna Wahlgren, who says that children should be "in the centre of a marriage, not the centre". Palmer adds, "Sometimes the focus will be on the children and sometimes on your partner. We've got to find ways of recognising that you can't do it all, you can't have it all, you've just got to do the best you can." "
The Telegraph, London courtesy of Sunday Life.
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