We interviewed Ted Cunningham about his book, Great Parents, Lousy Lovers, co-authored with Gary Smalley.

Ted, are there yellow flags that might indicate a marriage is kid-centered?
It would be most evident in your schedule. If your home is constantly adjusting and flexing around the children’s schedule, meaning you allow the school, dance and athletics to determine your family’s schedule — you’re lacking margin and rhythm. That’s one of the indicators of a kid-centered home.

Another one would be a permissive, guilt-prone parenting style where today’s parents treat their children like gold. Parents live with this fear they are going to damage their children by setting boundaries for them, by saying no.

The permissive, “anything goes” parenting style does two things: it creates a vacuum of intimacy in the parent’s marriage, and it teaches children they can be in the driver’s seat whenever they want. That is why when we release our children into the workplace or college environment they grow quite frustrated when professors, teachers, bosses or coaches don’t treat them in a manner similar to what their parents did.

So, the primary yellow flags would be with schedule and parenting style. We place more value on our kids than on our marriage.

What do you mean by “margin” and “rhythm”?
Margin is building free time into your schedule. We live in a culture where we feel like every minute needs to be filled up. We become entertainers of our children rather than teaching them how to be productive and responsible. We feel like we have to always have an activity to run them to. Margin says: I’m going to say no to some things, to provide room in my life — period.

Each family has a balloon that can only be blown up so much. Margin is letting some of the air out of that balloon — and not replacing it.

Rhythm is the work, play, and rest in the family schedule. It is a balanced ebb and flow of activity in your home. Kids learn how to prioritize and how to put the right amount of energy at the right time into the right activities.

Ted, what we’ve seen is a parenting style where marriage is put on hold — for ten years or so — while they dedicate their time to little Johnny. Have you found that to be common?
Yes, I have. I’ve never met a young man or woman who comes into my office, whose life is a wreck, and after I ask about their home life they respond with, Well, I think the issue, Pastor, is my mom and dad just loved each other too much. It’s just not the case. The greatest gift we can give our children is a great marriage.

When all of our energy, money and focus is on our kids, we’re not preparing them for the world. That is why we have prolonged adolescence today in our culture.

So, this is about parenting strategy . . .
Oh, absolutely. I do not have my kids forever. A leave-and-cleave parenting style means that every day as I invest in them I realize I am investing to send them out. The reason my marriage requires an even heavier investment is because we are one flesh for life; we don’t put each other on the backburner and say, We’ll pick it up later. We give our kids a gift of spending time together every day. We remind our children, as we head out the door for a weekend retreat, that we’re doing this for them as well as for us. This is a gift to them that their mom and dad love each other and will stay together and have zero plans of ever leaving each other.

I have always thought of leaving and cleaving as something that happens when a man or woman leaves their parents and gets married. But I think what you’re saying is “leave and cleave” has to be thought of and worked on long before the wedding date.
Absolutely. That is why Genesis 2:24 is such a key verse. Genesis 2:24 is almost more about parenting than it is about marriage. It says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother.” Notice it doesn’t say a “child” or an “adolescent.” It’s my goal as a dad, according to this Scripture, to make sure my kids are leaving home as adults. I don’t want to send them out of this house at 18, which is the traditional age in our culture, to have another ten years discovery before they become an adult.

The “leave and cleave” parenting style recognizes five milestones for adulthood: leave home, finish up any schooling or training, get a job, get married, and start a family. Now, in every generation up until the present day, those milestones have been done in a short period of time, if not simultaneously. But for some reason because of the way we over-invest in our kids, we’ve now placed those milestones on a ten-year-plus track to say: Take your time. Spread this out.

What’s interesting about the leave-and-cleave parenting style abandoned by Christian parents today is the average age for a man getting married now is 28 and for a woman 26. The fact that we’re delaying marriage in our culture points back to the fact parents are looking at their kids and saying, Go enjoy life.

These prolonged adolescents are looking back at their home and saying, My mom and dad may have stayed together but I don’t even know if they like each other. And now they’re encouraging me to go to college, but not to get caught up in a relationship. Then go out and get a job, but hold off on the relationship until the job gets squared away. And they say I should do some traveling because, Lord knows, once I get married my life is going to be over. Think of the implications today of the kid-centered home on our culture, society and churches for generations to come.

Any tips that would make that idea practical for couples?
Find time where you send the kids away. Or, we’ve done it the other way, too, where the kids are playing or in their rooms working on homework. We start dinner 15-20 minutes early. My kids aren’t big salad eaters so my wife and I may eat a salad, just the two of us, enjoy conversation, and then invite the kids to the table. Do not think family time is couple time  — it is not. Think about couple time every day.

Prioritize the spiritual journeys in your home. Mom, you have to take responsibility for your spiritual journey. Dad, take responsibility for yours. Then cultivate the marriage journey, and then cultivate the children’s journey.

If you flip the order it doesn’t work because Scripture is very clear. “We love because he first loved us.” We cannot generate one ounce of love. When you flip the order and you prioritize the children in the home and you prioritize their spiritual journey over the marriage journey, you come to them with an empty well. You have nothing to give them. You want a healthy, vibrant, growing spiritual life individually, then together as a couple, you’ll have an abundant supply to give your kids.

Copyright © 2011 by Jim Mueller, President and co-founder of Growthtrac Ministries.

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