The Greatest Gift You Can Give Your Child

“What do you think,” Wendy asked me during Eric’s well-child visit. “Mark and I want to attend but we are uncertain about leaving Eric.”

Mark and Wendy had heard about the upcoming marriage enrichment retreat for young couples which was one of several such retreats sponsored by their church and led by a skilled family counselor. They had heard that the retreat was designed to help husband and wives better understand themselves and their mate with the purpose of strengthening their marriage. They had discussed attending but had just about talked themselves out of it. Even though a competent older lady in the church has volunteered to keep two-year-old Eric for the weekend, they felt guilty about leaving him.

Memories of the marriage enrichment retreat that my wife and I had attended a few years ago flashed through my mind.  The experience had encouraged us. Even though we both knew we had a strong marriage, our relationship had been enhanced. Not only had we learned to be more honest with each other about our hopes, dreams, and feelings, we had experienced new and helpful methods of communication.

“Not only do I think it would be all right for you to leave Eric for the weekend,” I replied. “It could be the best thing that ever happened to him.”

“Wendy’s forehead wrinkled ever so slightly. “How can you mean that?” she asked with obvious surprise in her voice.

“Wendy, I really do mean just that,” I reassured her.  “The longer I practice pediatrics the more convinced I am that anything which strengthens the relationship between a husband and wife affirms the health and happiness of the children. The greatest gift we can give our children is a family with two growing, maturing parents living happily together in a mutually fulfilling marriage.”

I was adamant with Wendy for, in my experience, the mental and physical health of children is more closely tied to the stability and happiness of the parents than to anything else.  I know children from families where the parents have not been able to give them the nicest toys, or the best clothes, or the most exclusive schools, who nevertheless are happy, healthy, vibrant children because they live in a family which lives and loves confidently.

The arrival of a new baby brings on dramatic re-alignments in the husband and wife relationship. A new baby is naturally the center of attention. His or her persistent needs demand center stage. Proud parents are all too happy to shower their total attention on their offspring. Too often, however, all the new mom and dad’s time and energy is focused on the infant. Easily, the baby becomes the only point of contact between the once intimae couple.

Such intense interest and affection for the new baby is natural and healthy—to a point. Babies and toddlers certainly need to be bathed in attention and love. Often, however, this is where the trouble starts. Problems arise when the new mom and dad begin to subtly neglect each other’s needs for attention and emotional support. Too often they fail to notice just how far apart emotionally they have drifted. Sooner or later the strain reaches a crisis—often boiling over as anger, frustration, or depression.

The more I work with parents and children the more firmly I am convinced that the greatest gift parents can give to their children is two happy, well-adjusted parents.  And to do this, the husband and wife must continue to nurture their own relationship with each other after the children have arrived.  This does not mean that parents should selfishly gratify their own wishes and fantasies to the point of ignoring the needs of their children.  I am not saying that parents should give their children less attention.  I am saying that children will be their healthiest, both physically and emotionally, as their parents nurture their marriage relationship.  No amount of permissive adulation or physical comforts can substitute for the love which radiates from a family where husband and wife understand and appreciate each other.

A marriage needs to be nurtured intentionally and continuously. Good marriages do not just happen. The grow as they are fed and watered with love and understanding. Parents need knowledge of how to appreciate each other and how to communicate. They also need time to focus on the marriage relationship itself—and enjoy it. Thus the signal importance of the marriage retreat to Wendy and Mark as well as Eric

“Yes, Wendy, your trip to the marriage enrichment retreat could very well be the greatest gift you give Eric.”