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The Parenting Trap

When to neglect your kids

This week, I’ve asked my friend Eli Finkel to share his tip of the week. Enjoy!

Generations ago, parents profited off their children.

Family farms needed every helping hand, no matter how tiny. But as small-scale agricultural production gave way to corporate wage labor, intergenerational wealth flowed in reverse. And the changing relations between parents and their children extended beyond the financial—as children became economically useless, observes sociologist Viviana Zelizer, they also became emotionally priceless.

Today, we dedicate ourselves to our children’s cognitive and emotional well-being in ways that would have bewildered our ancestors. We attend their recitals and ballgames. We serve as chauffeurs to glean extra quality time with them. We feel guilty when work interferes with family dinner. Such tendencies are especially strong among the most educated, but the less educated exhibit them, too.

Well, so what, you might think. I’m an adult who can set my own priorities. What’s wrong with sacrificing some of my own happiness for my children’s happiness?

Maybe nothing. But all of that concerted cultivation takes time and emotional energy. You sacrifice other things when you invest so much in your children—and some of those sacrifices might paradoxically harm them in the long run.

Consider, for example, the effects on marriage (for those who are married or in a marriage-like relationship). The expectations so many of us bring to that relationship today—for love, personal growth, a sense of purpose—are resource-demanding. A century ago, many marriages functioned just fine without concerted investment. Today, that investment has shifted from a luxury to a necessity; few can sustain a strong marriage on the cheap.

You may be willing to give up some marital fulfillment for the sake of your children, and this self-sacrifice is laudable. But any such calculus requires that you consider not only your direct investments in your children, but also your indirect ones, including those that foster family stability or model a mature relationship between loving adults.

Sometimes, the two types of investments are compatible, as when a vacation cultivates both family bonding (direct) and a passionate renaissance with your spouse (indirect).

But these priorities often conflict. When that happens, do you invest in your children or in your marriage? It depends, of course. But many people, proud of their devotion to their children, forget that there’s even a decision to be made.

Don’t feel guilty for taking time to spend with your spouse. You may feel like your children are suffering in the short term, but they are likely to gain more in the long term.

Do be proactive about taking the time to strengthen your marriage—and not just on Valentine’s Day.

With love and gratitude,

Eli Finkel, author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, is a professor at Northwestern University, where he has appointments in the psychology department and the Kellogg School of Management.