What Children Learn from Their Parents' Marriage

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9780060191887: What Children Learn from Their Parents' Marriage

How are your children learning about intimacy? What are they seeing when they see your marriage in action?

In this provocative new look at family dynamics, marriage and family therapist Judith P. Siegel asserts that the key to a child's healthy development is not simply the relationship he has with each parent but the perception he has of the relationship between his parents. It may be your marriage, says Siegel, but it is your child's blueprint for the intimate relationships he will form as an adult.

Combining her own clinical work with the latest research on families and child development, Siegel identifies the key elements of marriage that provide critical information to children. They include: the degree to which the marriage is a priority; the level of mutual support, respect, and trust between husband and wife; how marital differences are negotiated and conflict resolved; and how friendship and affection are communicated. With significant ramifications for divorcing couples with children as well as intact families, What Children Learn from Their Parents' Marriage offers useful advice, illuminating examples, and insight for parents intent on building the solid foundation that all children need for a happy, emotionally secure future.

We all know that our own marriages are largely influenced by those with which we grew up, but what we tend to forget is how our own children are being affected by the marriage they are witnessing. In this enlightening book, you will be able to learn more about the ways in which your marriage is affecting your child. Some of what you will read will offer confirmation that what is going on in your marriage is wonderful for your children; some areas may not be going as smoothly as you might like. But if your goal is to create a positive legacy of love for your children, this eye-opening book becomes essential reading.

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About the Author:

Judith P. Siegel, Ph.D., C.S.W., is an associate professor at the New York University Ehrenkranz School of Social Work and a marriage and family therapist in private practice. A recognized expert in her field, she is the author of two academic books and numerous articles on marital dynamics and marriage therapy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 How Children Learn from the Marriage"I Wonder What You Will RememberWhen You Are Grown Up"

THERE IS AN OLD SAYING that goes "Children do as they see, not as they are told." I'm sure you have heard this before: If you want your child to read more, the best way to accomplish this is to read more yourself. When you want to improve your child's manners or way of dealing with other people, you must first consider how you deal with others and what your child is teaming through watching your behavior. Children imitate and become what they observe. While it is true that a child is influenced by the relationship lie has with each parent on an individual basis, he also notices and draws conclusions about the relationship between his parents. In fact, that relationship becomes the blueprint for all his future intimate relationships.

I'm Watching You

Children are keen observers of their parents' marriage. Whether or not you are aware of it, your children are noticing the large and the small details of your marital relationship. The truth is, most children are aware of many "private" exchanges their parents assume are beyond their comprehension--a small gesture of confort, a hostile glance. While your children may not be talking to you about what they are learning, they are drawing conclusions about "what happens" to people who are married. These conclusions will become a permanent part of their beliefs and expectations, and will prepare them to form their own marital relationships when they are older.

Children turn to their parents in order to make sense of the world. They are also highly sensitive and reactive to the emotional climate around them, and are very attuned to conflicts and tensions that do not even directly involve them. Children want to be happy, and do best when their environment is peaceful and secure. In order to avoid being punished or creating a problem, children try to figure out the rules-and then just how far they can bend them.

But psychologists have discovered that children do not need to learn everything from firsthand experience. They learn just as much from watching what happens to other people, and then applying the "rules" to themselves. Psychologist Alfred Bandura was able to demonstrate this in a process that has come to be known as "social learning."' Bandura had two groups of children go to a room that contained a variety of toys-including an inflated plastic "Bobo" doll that would sway when punched. The first group of children played freely with all the toys, including Bobo. Before entering the playroom the second group of children were shown a tape in which a child started to play with Bobo and then was sharply reprimanded by an adult who warned the child not to play with the doll anymore. After watching this tape, the children were led to the same toy-filled room. Bandura discovered that the children in his second group played freely with most of the toys, but that not one child would have anything to do with Bobo! Even though they had not been directly instructed to leave Bobo alone, they had learned through watching the tape and seeing what happened to others that it would be safer to choose a different toy.

In the same way, your children are keen observers of your marriage. They pay attention to when and how you disagree, notice how you and your partner react to each other, and in countless ways form impressions about the rules of married life. Some of what they learn has to do with roles, the activities that define what a mommy or a daddy does. You may have pleasant memories or current stories of your child pretending to be a mommy, and acting out the part with enough skill to earn an Emmy. However, children also tune in to the emotional climate and the sense of well-being between family members. Children watch how you and your partner interact and handle situations together. They then draw conclusions about how married people treat each other, for better or for worse.

If Monika. watches her parents talk about buying a new car, she teams how married grown-ups work together in making decisions. When they are able to talk calmly and share ideas and different perspectives, Monika teams that both parents are respected, and that differences are okay and safe to express. If Monika's dad acts like his wife's ideas are stupid and that the decision is basically his to make, Monika. teams a great deal about power and how people work out their differences. Mom and Dad may not even be aware that Monika has been listening and would probably be startled to realize that Monika's reaction to them as a couple will pave the way to her own beliefs about intimate relationships.

What Do You See?

Do you ever wonder what your children are thinking? Sometimes they amuse us with the explanations they construct. Sometimes they amaze us with their perception and intuition. What children notice, believe, and remember changes as they develop.

What Monika learns about her parents' marriage is partially based on her age, but it is also based on what she has come to expect because of earlier observations of her parents' marriage. Psychologists have learned that children, from a very early age, create a mental road map to help them make sense of the world around them. This is necessary in order to put new situations in a context that makes them understandable so that information can be processed more efficiently. Even as adults, we use what we already know to interpret new events. The underlying structure, which is called a "schema," is occasionally modified to absorb new information, but most of our interpretations and conclusions reflect the belief system that is already in place. Research studies on children and adults have shown that people select or focus on information that will confirm their beliefs, and disregard or minimize evidence to the contrary!

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