By Jodie Berndt
A cross-stitched sampler hung on the wall in my growing-up kitchen. “The greatest thing a man can do for his children,” the needlework read, “is to love their mother.”
As a teen, I figured my mother had hung it there like a motivational poster of sorts for my dad, the way I taped signs to the fridge as my birthday approached: “Ten shopping days left.”
Now, more than thirty years later, I realize the power in that one single sentence—and that (as my mom knew) the words cut both ways. As dads and as moms, the greatest thing we can do for our kids is to model Christ’s love—and put his John 13:34 command into practice—by loving one another.
The thing is, though, most of us don’t.
We don’t prioritize our marriage relationship—at least not consistently and intentionally—in ways that keep our focus on each other.
Instead, we center our lives around our children. Babies and toddlers demand our physical energy and attention, and then as they grow and become more independent, our kids continue to captivate our hearts and our minds. They can even become idols of sorts—either because they are so cute/talented/smart/athletic that they make us proud, or because their behavior/friendships/lifestyle choices/work habits make us anxious.
One way or another, our children can fill the radar screen of our devotion, pushing our spouse (and our marriage) to the outer edges of the field.
I’m not pointing fingers. Trust me, Robbie and I have been the proud/anxious/all-consumed parents more times than either of us cares to admit. We made plenty of rookie (and not-so-rookie) mistakes. But as we look back on our parenting journey, child-focused and neurotic as it often was, I’m convinced we did two things right.
First, we let our kids see us pray.
We knew we didn’t have all the answers, and as we openly acknowledged our dependence on God, our children learned to look past our weaknesses and recognize God’s strength and provision for our family. Seeing a weak and flawed earthly parent talking to a powerful and perfect heavenly Parent can give kids a greater sense of security than any family love, friendship circle, or financial wealth could ever provide.
The second thing we did—the thing that gave our kids a greater sense of security and family stability than anything else—was to ignore them. Not always, of course, but for about ten or fifteen minutes every day. Robbie would come home from work and, after he greeted the children and handed out hugs, he and I would sit on the sofa, talking. The kids were dying to jump all over Robbie—we all were—but they knew better than to interrupt.
And at least three things happened as a result of those handful of minutes.
First, I felt special, knowing that whatever I had to say about the day, no matter how mundane, mattered to Robbie. Second, the children got a nightly witness of what prioritizing a marriage looks like. And third, in a side effect I did not fully appreciate at the time, they gained the sense that our marriage—and by extension our family—was stable.
Our kids are grown now, with kids of their own. Like many of their peers, both Mom and Dad work outside the home. This can make “just us” time harder to implement; it’s natural to want to focus on the children instead of each other when you haven’t seen them all day. But we’re encouraging our adult children to make this one-on-one marriage time part of their family routine—maybe not right when they get home from work, but at some point during the evening (or on weekends) when the children can see what is happening.
Robbie and I can still picture our four little “monkeys,” giggling and peeking around the corner into the living room and stage-whispering to each other, “Shhh! This is Mom and Dad’s time!” They had no idea what we were talking about; that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was that they knew their parents were focused on each other—and they loved it. And while we didn’t know it back then, what we were doing had a profound impact on both their sense of security as children and their future happiness in their own marriages.
Plenty of research points to the link between destructive behaviors in a marriage and the negative impact they can have on a child’s emotional or physical health. But the opposite is also true. The good things—things like showing honor and affection to your spouse—help kids feel stable and secure and allow them to enjoy “just being a kid.” Not only that, but when we model such healthy behaviors toward one another—whether it’s through kind words, physical touch, or a genuine interest in what our partner is saying—we provide a barometer for what an eventual spouse should look like. Our kids will be drawn to people who evidence similar qualities because it’s what they know.
In other words, my mom’s cross-stitched sampler was right: as parents, the greatest thing we can do for our children is to love each other.
One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts. (Psalm 145:4)
Take a few moments to reflect on your own family habits.
• Do you regularly put your children and their needs ahead of your spouse?
• Do you struggle with the pressure to “get it all right” in your marriage or your parenting? Do your children see you extending—and receiving—forgiveness?
• Do they know you pray?
Ask God to reveal any areas where your family priorities might be misaligned. Surrender your habits and desires to him, trusting the Holy Spirit to help you honor your spouse and release any pressure you feel to be perfect. God longs to reveal his love through your marriage; commit to partnering with him through your prayers as you trust him to bless and protect your family.
Teach us to walk in love, giving ourselves up for one another just as Christ gave himself for us. (Ephesians 5:2)
May our children see the gospel reflected in our marriage as we submit to one another, treating each other with love and respect. (Ephesians 5:21, 33)
Pour out your Spirit on our offspring, your blessing on our descendants. (Isaiah 44:3)
Jodie Berndt is a popular speaker, Bible teacher, and the bestselling author of the Praying the Scriptures series for Children, Teens, Adult Children, Life, and the just-released Praying the Scriptures for Your Marriage. The new book covers twenty different relationship topics, from handling conflict to improving communication to navigating differences in your faith. Complete with discussion questions, easy scripture-based prayers, and a guided 31-Day Prayer Challenge, this book offers the help and the hope you need to step into greater intimacy with each other and with God.