If you’re a parent — whether you’re married, in a long-term relationship, dating, or focusing on your friendships — your kids will learn a lot from the way you interact with the people close to you. When kids (at some point) build their own romantic relationships, close friendships, and even a new family someday, what real-life examples will they draw from?
In the realm of personal relationships, kids will eventually tend to do as you do, not as you say. It’s wonderful (and necessary!) to discuss topics like how to be in a respectful relationship or how to get out of a toxic one — but they also need to know what healthy relationships look and sound like on a daily basis.
This Valentine’s Day, don’t just focus on the cards, flowers, and chocolates. Use the season as an opportunity and a reminder to show kids what real love and respect looks like. Here are some tips for how to model some of the most important aspects of healthy relationships.
Consent, even for the little things
Consent is certainly not just for the bedroom. You can model consent in other ways to show respectful ways of interacting with your partner. Kids of any age can learn and benefit from this basic concept of permission and respect.
Here are some everyday examples of modeling consent:
- Ask if you can take/share a photo of your partner before doing so.
- Make a point (in front of your kids) of checking to make sure family plans you’re making work for your spouse. Give them a chance to express any preferences around the time, venue, and people involved rather than just assuming it’ll be fine with them.
- Avoid casually grabbing/slapping as a playful surprise or kissing/hugging as “repayment” for something. Consider that this is the kind of behavior that kids may try out on (or expect to receive from) future crushes.
- Make sure your partner is on the same page before revealing important news or personal information to a bigger group of family or friends. Respect their wishes to keep something private.
- Discuss and agree on what tasks you’ll each be responsible for around the house on a regular basis — don’t just assume your partner is fine with the current division of labor.
Give thoughtful gifts
Whether it’s for your partner, close friend, or even your own child, a personal, heartfelt gift can speak volumes about how to be a great friend or partner. While sea salt caramel chocolates from the store might be just about the perfect thing for some recipients, occasional gifts that you put more thought and effort into show that you really care (and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with giving both!).
Think: a personalized playlist, a letter detailing what you appreciate about the person, a homemade meal with all their favorite flavors, a slideshow or video, or a well-planned date or outing together. You can even involve your child in planning or keeping a surprise for another family member so they soak up some of that spirit of generosity.
Thank each other on an everyday basis too
Show your partner some appreciation — not (just) with gifts and sentimental social media captions on special occasions, but with genuine, everyday expressions of gratitude. When you regularly and spontaneously thank your loved ones from the heart, it will strengthen your personal relationships and send an even louder message to kids about how to treat someone with care and respect.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can thank your spouse or partner for everything from putting away the dishes, to researching your vacation, to emailing the school and taking time off from work when the kids are sick.
Don’t fight — problem solve together
When you’re tempted to pick a fight or take an irritated tone with your partner, take a deep breath first and think of it as a problem-solving mission instead. Remember that your child is observing, and that your partner has feelings too. So whenever you have a conflict, including a parenting disagreement, stay calm and set aside time to talk about it when you’ll be able to focus and listen better.
Instead of accusing your partner of anything, practice using “I” statements so that you don’t hurt their feelings from the outset. Consider yourselves teammates, and that mindset will go a long way toward healthy communication and conflict resolution. Kids will learn a lot from your example about how to work with peers, friends, family members, and future romantic partners.
That said, occasionally tempers flare and you might find yourself having a tense or loud disagreement with your partner. If that does happen, be sure to also make up in front of your kids, so they can see that you still love each other, even if you don’t always agree.
Apologize when you mess up
Everyone, in every relationship ever, makes mistakes. When you do, offering a genuine apology goes a long way toward strengthening the relationship. It also goes a long way toward modeling healthy, mature emotional responses for kids.
When kids are expected to apologize for their behavior but don’t see the adults in their lives apologize for theirs, it sends a confusing message. You can learn to apologize both to your kids and to other adults in your life.
You don’t have to wait until you blow up and really offend someone to apologize. Normalizing genuine apologies to your partner might sound like: “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have used that tone. I was stressed about something else. Let me try again,” or, “I’m sorry I forgot to pick that up at the store. I know it was important to you.”
Get yourselves the help you need
You and your partner don’t have to have it all figured out in order to model a healthy relationship for your kids. Perhaps you haven’t found enough ways to connect with each other since you had kids, or one or both of you has unresolved generational trauma or childhood trauma that is affecting the way you relate to others in adulthood, or there are some important life questions that you and your partner just don’t agree on.
While you probably shouldn’t lay out all of your relationship troubles to your kids, you can be open about solutions like going to therapy or practicing better ways to communicate with each other.
And if and when a relationship needs to change or end, making that decision can even set a healthy example too, especially if it’s done with a good amount of compassion, communication, and reflection. Here are some tips for talking to kids of different ages about divorce and separation.