Honey, I’m ignoring the kids

 My guilt at skipping off to the theatre with my husband for a cultural fix 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 dear eldest boy, there was a faint, satisfying belief that he had learned a lesson, one which, 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 our children to their own devices while we enjoy ourselves as a couple, we mothers and fathers are not damaging our progeny, but enriching their lives, a theory now made official by the publication of ‘To Raise Happy Kids Put Your Marriage First’ by the American family therapist David Code.
Code believes that by suffocating our children with attention while neglecting our 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 win-win for the whole family.
Setting a good example
Indeed, we are so terrified of being selfish adults that we have forgotten that simply setting a good example is what actually creates a rounded, successful happy human being – surely all we want for our children. 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 springs to mind – her children were shuttled from French lesson to theatre audition to scuba diving in Egypt. Every day was an opportunity for yet another superlative, 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?’
Stop outsourcing
Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, and author of Paranoid Parenting, agrees that modelling a healthy relationship with your partner is far more beneficial to a child than ‘outsourcing’ every aspect of their development to a tutor. ‘Children’s security and their sense of wellbeing is inseparable from how they view the two people that they have the most amount of confidence and trust in – their father and mother – and if that relationship seems harmonious and happy it can act as a source of inspiration and security for that child.’
Forgotton values
Given the surplus of good parenting books, government guidelines and competitive mothering, it would seem that we have lost a sense of our true selves, and what we mean to each other as a couple. We are so obsessed with acquisition and achievement that we forget the value for a child of seeing their parents hug. Even Michelle Obama manages 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 kindly Romanian cleaner lets the kids run riot, the next week we’d be jetting off to Ibiza for the weekend, leaving the toddler squalling in his cot with a bottle of Coke.
The other view
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 ‘If You Want Happy Kids Put Your Marriage First,’ and doesn’t believe that ‘out of the house’ is necessary. If you wish to demonstrate to your children that you enjoy a healthy, happy relationship with your spouse, he believes it is enough for them to witness your ‘points of contact.’ (These can include ‘witnessing you getting happily drunk together, or having jokes together, or listening to music in the car together.’)
When I confess that my husband and I have never had a weekend away from our kids (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 guardian isn’t that close, it can be traumatic.’
Trusting our kids
Our modern reluctance to trust our children to build relationships with other children and other adults, to allow them to learn from their mistakes without Mummy hot on their heels squeaking ‘careful!’ is damaging. If we forever present as anxious, so obviously convinced of their imminent doom, we create neurotic children who have no self-esteem, no faith in themselves or their ability to do anything.
Sue Palmer quotes the 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 it will be on your partner. We get so pointy-headed about things. 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.’

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