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We want so much for our children. We want them to be safe, healthy, educated, fulfilled, strongly committed to Christ. And, as much as almost anything, we want them to be happily married someday. But how can we help them do that?
First of all, life has no guarantees. The most wonderful parents of the most wonderful children can still find divorce cutting a jagged swath through their lives. Most of us have lived long enough to see this happen even under what we thought were the best conditions.
Many simply never find their mate. And we know that not a single promise in the hereafter will be denied to those who would marry if they could. We still want them to be happy—and this one skill can ensure not only contentment in this life, but marital success in the next, even if they don’t find their eternal companion on this side of the veil.
Yet this uncertainty doesn’t mean we should give up and leave our lives to the winds of fate. We want our children to have the best opportunity to make a happy marriage. So why not equip them with the Number One skill that can prevent divorce and create a joyful union?
If you’re waiting for me to say, “Just set a good example,” you’ll have a long wait. First, even though the power of a good example is strong, there are thousands of single-parent families where this simply can’t apply. You can’t set the example of marital harmony if you aren’t even married. Yet these parents desire their kids’ happiness just as much as married parents do.
You also won’t find me recommending the Primary Answers that I actually love in many situations (attend church, pray, read your scriptures). Following these wise precepts is a great recipe for life, but I’m thinking of something much more focused upon creating a strong marriage unit.
And I won’t advise waiting until they’re back from their mission or in college to take a good look at the next step. They need to develop this crucial skill over a lifetime. In fact, this skill will help them with siblings, on missions, in college, and in the workforce. In fact, this skill will help them live more happily, even if they never marry at all.
So what is it? What can any parent teach, and what could possibly be such a magic bullet? It’s being a Surprise Maker.
Here’s how it works. Every day, think of a way to delightfully surprise someone in your family. If you’re married, you begin your day with the thought, “What can I do—right now—that would make my wife or husband have a better day?” Completely focus upon doing something to please your spouse.
When kids are little, they can do this for family members. “What can I do—right now—to make Emmie feel special or cared about?” Then quickly go about creating that surprise.
The more you do it, the better it works. It’s completely forgetting about yourself, and doing what President Hinckley advised when he said, “Constantly do whatever might be possible to ensure the comfort and happiness of your companion.”
If you can get kids to do this—even to classmates—they will carry the habit of selflessness into their adulthood. And they will be joyful, successful people. They will not struggle with the Number One cause of divorce: Selfishness. They will have already beaten it.
Help your children create a surprise for their siblings—make their bed while they’re in the shower, leave them a loving sticky-note on their closet door, fold their laundry, read a story to little ones, help with diapering, offer to give a ride to a pre-teen, tiptoe when someone’s studying. The list is endless of small favors they can do every day. These little “good deeds” may seem inconsequential, but they are powerful at bringing the spirit of love into your home. They can prevent quarrels and build bonds that will last a lifetime—and beyond.
Best of all, this is fun. It’s like being Santa Claus, or one of the shoemaker’s elves. There’s a tingly delight in selfless acts, and it often pleases us as much as it pleases the recipient.
When you’re at the supermarket with one of them, ask what they think would be a fun surprise to get for the one who’s not there. Or do that for the other parent. When one child is discouraged or has a bad day, have another child make a list of the wonderful traits of their sibling, to remind them of their value. If someone is struggling to finish a chore, get other kids to pitch in and help. If one child can’t find a missing sweatshirt, let everyone join the search-and-rescue effort. If a child is crying, teach siblings how to comfort. Constantly be about making happy surprises. Each child will see the generosity of spirit coming back to them, too, as this kindness circles back their way as well.
This trains kids to actively watch for needs, and meet them. What a great trait in an employee, right? Even better in a spouse. Teaching kids not to be self-centered also prevents whining, entitlement attitudes, and pouting. It creates kids who enjoy serving, and know its rewards first hand. It also keeps kids humble, instead of prideful. Yes, quarrels erupt in every family. But they’ll be fewer and less severe. This honestly works.
If you didn’t learn this growing up, here’s how it can work right now in your marriage:
You get up and notice your husband is running late. You save him a minute by pouring him the juice he likes, and putting his lunch together. You tell him it means the world that he’s always willing to work hard to support the family. You may not have said it in awhile, but you feel it and want him to know it.
You come home from work and notice your wife is visibly sweating, after chasing your active toddlers all day. You had a hard day as well, but you take her in your arms, rub her neck, and scoop her some ice cream. It’s before dinner, but so what? “Let’s cool you down and give you a break.”
You notice your husband left some rakes and shovels leaning against the wall outside. Rain is coming. Instead of reminding him, you simply put them away.
Your wife is struggling to get all the parts of her Primary lesson together. She’s cutting out some paper Book of Mormon characters for her lesson, simultaneously offering homework help to your eight-year-old, and watching the pot of chili on the stove. You turn off the game on TV, grab some scissors, and take over the cutting. Then you set the table, and pull out her chair.
Your husband’s favorite food is fried chicken, but you hate the mess it makes. You fix it anyway one night, just to surprise him.
You notice your wife’s favorite singer is coming to town. You buy concert tickets and surprise her.
You buy lipstick in the wrong shade of red. You start to toss it out, but then decide to scribble a loving message on your husband’s bathroom mirror.
This “how can I help him/her” mindset can become a daily habit, one you almost don’t need to think about. It makes your partner feel valued, grateful, and motivated to do the same for you. It keeps you from snapping at one another, criticizing, faultfinding, and self-pitying. In short, it circumvents the entire nit-picking approach Satan would have us use. And it can be learned even by tiny children whose marriages are twenty years away, or more.
Like many solutions to problems, this one looks simplistic, almost too easy. Until you try it. Then you see the power in it. And if you do it when you’re mad or cranky, if you fight through knee-jerk reactions and extend kindness anyway, it will mean all the more.
And again, this can work for people who never marry, but just want to improve all their relationships.
Not only does it convince others you care about them, but it has a tremendous hidden benefit: It intensifies the love you feel for them. We learn to love those we serve. By constantly looking for small, do-able tasks that would delight our mate we actually undergo a change of heart, a deepening of our love for that person.
Done consistently, this will ingrain habits that will help you—and your children—eliminate selfishness and ensure marital bliss. And who wouldn’t give the world for their children to have that blessing?