My friend and her husband (who I’ll call Jackie and Tim) have their young grandson Micah with them every Saturday—and they love it. Sometimes they do special things with Micah, but most weekends they run errands and do Saturday chores and activities around the house—with lots of games, Legos, Play-Doh, and tickle fights mixed in.
Jackie told me she started noticing that whenever they were together, Micah loved being next to her. If they were reading a story, he sat close enough to touch and rested his hand on hers. He was drawn to connecting physically. It seemed to just be an instinctive, natural behavior—but one that definitely was building a bond between them. Jackie works in a field related to helping marriage and relationships, and started wondering: could some of the natural behaviors of young children be useful for adults to learn from?
I am intrigued by that idea. As adults, we work to grow our relationship skills by reading books, going to conferences, and (ahem) following blogs. Kids do none of those things. But despite that, young kids have certain natural tendencies—sort of built-in predispositions—that are actually really helpful for building healthy and happy relationships at any age. (Although of course, as any parent who has endured a temper-tantrum can attest, kids also have certain tendencies that will do exactly the opposite of building good relationships! Which is where parents come in, to steer them in a different way.)
So when you’re around the children in your life (maybe one’s in your lap right now while you’re reading this), keep an eye out for some of the sweet behaviors that draw you together—and see how you can put them into practice with your spouse.
Kids want to be physically near you.
When you’re around any child that you’re closely related to for more than about 15 minutes, they’ll most likely be touching you in some way—leaning on you, holding hands, jumping on you, or settling in for a quality snuggle. That physical closeness comes without thinking. For kids, touch is their default. Which is why a lack of affectionate touch for a child is so damaging, developmentally.
That same kind of default touch is a warm and wonderful way to stay connected (literally!) to your spouse. And men, in most cases, it is super important to your wife—even if “physical touch” isn’t one of her main “love languages.” Our research for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages identified affectionate touch as having a huge impact on making wives feel precious and cared for. So guys, ask her if it matters. And if so, make it your default: put your arm around her in church, hold hands in the grocery store, sit thisclose when you’re watching TV. Bonus: The warmth of nonsexual touch between husband and wife often kindles the embers that lead to sparks in the bedroom.
Kids are quick to forgive.
Can you think of a time when a child in your life got really upset with you and less than 10 minutes later it was miraculously over and forgotten? Young kids from loving families tend to practice the healthy relationship habit of keeping short accounts. In other words: they don’t hold a grudge. They move on from conflict. And they assume the best. They know you love them and they love you too; that is never in question.
One of the most important findings of the Highly Happy Marriages research was related to this. We found that in the vast majority of normal (non-abusive) marriages, if you want to have a happy marriage you have to move through conflict or arguments assuming this truth: that your spouse cares about you and does not intend to hurt you. Happy couples know how to put conflict into perspective.
For kids, a shorter attention span might assist their rapid transition from hurt back to happiness. We adults would benefit from some attention span reduction—cutting short our stewing and grumbling and turning to what is right with our spouse and our relationship. Every minor conflict doesn’t have to escalate, every thought or concern doesn’t need to be expressed. As long as it is not something serious, sometimes we can simply “let it go” and move on.
Kids like hanging out with you.
It’s fun to do special things with kids and grandkids: going to a ballgame, concert, or museum. But the best family times don’t always require reserved tickets, a special outfit, or a long wait in line, right? For example, lots of young kids like “helping” with cooking and fix-it jobs around the house. (Hmmm . . . can we bottle and save that desire for the teen years?!) Games, tickle fights, making music—the simple pleasures—are often enough because kids just like being with you.
Likewise, in marriage, simply enjoying the companionship of your spouse allows your relationship to flourish. Research for the Highly Happy Marriages book showed that the happiest couples spend significant time hanging out together. Just as Jackie and Tim have regular time scheduled with their grandson, it’s important for couples to schedule time together. And the most important thing is that time together; of secondary importance is what you actually do. It becomes a healthy and happy cycle—spending time together makes you happy and being happy causes you to want to spend more time together.Kids love you just as you are.
Your child or grandchild, niece or nephew doesn’t really care if you’re a vice president, if you’re 20 pounds overweight, if you have a Ph.D., or if you can’t follow a map to save your life. Your status, your successes and foibles don’t matter. They love you for you. Your role to them—mom, dad, grandmom, granddad, aunt, uncle—is what makes you special. You hold a place in their life and in their heart that no one else can fill.
Kids love you unconditionally, and happy couples are the same. They think the best of their spouse. They support each other and lift each other up. They focus on the good qualities of their mates and (while not ignoring significant issues) put weaknesses in the background. They love their spouses—quirks and all—just as they are.
Spending time with children we love dearly—and who love us so much and so well—is one of the sweetest experiences life has to offer. Sure, kids can drive us crazy sometimes. (We all have our days, don’t we?) Just as we can drive one another crazy in marriage sometimes. But we should never lose the focus on their sweetness—or the sweetness of our marriage.
Going forward, as parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, let’s take note of what the natural childhood healthy and happy approach to relationships can teach us. Those things not learned in a book or applied with effort, but that they just do—and we can, too.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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