Has your child begun to see your partners imperfections through your eyes?
During the honeymoon phase of a romantic relationship, your partner can do no wrong. You find their quirky mannerisms endearing and laugh at their jokes, even when shared over and again. You enjoy seeing them sleeping in on a weekend morning and rouse them with gentle kisses. After a while, some of the mannerisms and jokes become annoying to you. You criticize your partner for sleeping in so late and for not helping clean the house when you are, for not helping with the kids’ homework or getting them out of the house on time. There are no more gentle kisses. Mostly harsh words and sarcastic comments, sometimes spoken in the company of others.
By others, I mean more than just peers. Others include the little people who are living in the house with you – your children. Over time, the children begin to see your spouse – their other parent – through your eyes. Mostly, your comments are not intentionally meant to taint your children’s view of the other most significant adult in their lives. For example, you may say something such as “Go wake up your lazy bum of a father. It’s time for him to take out the garbage.” Or, “You know your mother. We go to the mall for one item and come out with a handful. She sure knows how to spend money on unnecessary things.” What you may think of as being playful or cute, especially when part of your narrative over time, creates an image for your children of who their parents are. So, dad is lazy and mom is an irresponsible spender. Even eye rolling or sighing in response to your partner’s behaviour, sends a strong message to your children and they follow your example.
The same is true for positive perceptions of one’s partner. “Wow, your mom is such an amazing organizer. We’re so fortunate to have her planning our vacation” or “I love seeing dad helping you ride your bicycle. He’s so patient. That’s one of the qualities I love about him.” Sometimes, we think these things in our head but don’t say them out loud. When children are around, especially, sharing your thoughts and reflections can lead to very powerful positive perceptions and core beliefs about their parents.
When I hear from a parent that their child talks to them disrespectfully by swearing or criticizing or berating them, for example, I ask questions about that person’s relationship with the child’s other parent – whether the parents are living together or apart – my thinking is the same. Often, I learn that the child is behaving the same way their other parent talks or treats the parent to whom they are being abusive or critical towards.
A parent’s words or actions are very powerful and can leave a marked impression on their children – they can either encourage positive regard towards the other parent or at the most extreme, alienate the child from them.
It’s true that as children grow, they too may see traits in a parent that they have a hard time respecting, but I encourage you to give your child a fair chance to figure this out on their own. You don’t have to be false or hypocritical. You don’t have to pretend that your partner or your ex is someone that inspires you, if they don’t. However, rather don’t say anything at all when in the company of your children. And if you’re co parenting and you’re not happy with your partner’s behaviour or values, then be mindful about the right time and place to work out your concerns. Then take this up with them directly, one on one, rather than when you have an audience.