Q: My wife and I-like most couples-have our share of disagreements on how to parent. One of the things we’ve been disagreeing on lately is whether or not it’s okay to fight in front of the kids. I think it will teach our children how to compromise. My wife thinks it will scar them for life. What do you think?
A: Parenting approaches are the source of just about as many marital spats as money and division of labor. Ideally, you should avoid having huge fights in front of your children. Kids are scared and confused when their parents yell at each other, and researchers have found that the angrier the parents, the more distressed the children.
But this doesn’t mean that whenever the kids are around, you and your wife always have to see eye-to-eye (or at least seem to). In fact, just the opposite is true. Children of parents who have regular and resolved fights have higher levels of interpersonal poise and self-esteem that those whose parents have chronic unresolved fights or those whose parents appear not to fight at all.
Your kids can learn plenty from watching you and your wife disagree, provided you do it civilly. Seeing how you handle your disagreements respectfully will encourage your children to do the same. It may also help them learn some negotiation and bargaining skills that will come in handy when trying to convince others of their point of view.
In addition, there’s some evidence that a little spousal fighting may actually be good for the both of you, too. Internalizing your anger for long periods of time can cause all sorts of problems, including ulcers, high blood pressure, and depression. And if you don’t let off a little steam now and then, your anger can come out in other more subtle ways: forgetting to pick up groceries on the way home from work, double-booking the kids, not filling up the car with gas, and so on.
So let your children see you and your partner squabble about easily resolvable things and schedule weekly or, if necessary, daily meetings away from the kids to discuss the bigger issues.
Big or small, if you do ever have a disagreement in front of your child, pay close attention to how you make up afterwards. "It is probably useful for young children to observe how adults re-negotiate their relationship following a squabble or moments of hostility," says writer Lilian Katz. "These observations can reassure the child that when distance and anger come between her and members of the family, the relationship is not over but can be resumed to be enjoyed again."