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?
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.
No one ever wants to talk about money issues because they’re afraid it’ll lead to a fight. Well, guess what? Not talking about it could lead to a financial meltdown that could destroy your relationship. Fight now vs. divorce later? Pretty easy choice. Great article in the WJS here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203370604577263602243736504.html
Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I sometimes fight when our children, eight and ten, are present. We know we probably shouldn’t argue in front of them but things are sometimes so tense that we can’t stop ourselves (I recently lost my job and we’re facing possible foreclosure). How damaging is it to argue in front of children, and how can we stop?
A: You’re right: you probably shouldn’t argue in front of your children. Some studies have found that kids whose parents fight a lot may become depressed, anxious, or withdrawn. They may also imitate their parents and pick fights with siblings, friends, and even other adults.
That said, it’s completely unrealistic to think that you and your wife should never argue at all. Disagreements are a natural part of even the best relationships. In fact, not having any arguments might be worse than an occasional flare-up. Small quarrels are good for letting off steam—and given your precarious financial situation, you’re producing enough steam to supply your whole neighborhood with electricity. Keeping it all bottled up will eventually lead to a huge explosion. Exposing your kids to small amounts of conflict—along with the same number of make-ups—demonstrates effective problem-solving skills and shows that fighting with someone you love is not the end of the world.
So your challenge isn’t really to step arguing at all, but to find ways to handle your disagreements constructively. One excellent approach is to agree that when you see that an argument is in danger of turning ugly, you’ll stop and give yourselves time to cool off. Come up with a secret word or phrase that either one of you can say that signals it’s time for a break. If you’re able to postpone the argument for a bit, chances are that one of three things will happen: You’ll be able to discuss things more calmly, you’ll realize that the issue wasn’t as big a deal as you thought, or you’ll forget what you were arguing about in the first place.
Of course, despite your best intentions, you’re never going to be able to stop yourselves every time. Here are some things to do when your kids end up with front-row seats:
- Fight fair. No yelling, no swearing, no personal insults, no threats, no door slamming or vase throwing, and certainly no physical violence of any kind, ever.
- Damage control. Talk to your children about what they saw. Don’t go into details or lay any blame. Simply tell them that you and mom disagreed and lost your tempers, but now you’ve made up and everything is okay.
- Don’t pretend things are fine when they aren’t. Your kids are old enough to understand that you’ll all need to make some sacrifices for the good of the family. But don’t panic them—they need to know that no matter what happens, you’ll be there to care for them.
- Reassure. Children often blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts. Let them know it’s not their fault.
- Explain. If possible, tell your children how you resolved the issue. For example: “We disagreed on where to spend the holidays, but compromised by going to grandma’s on Christmas Eve and to Aunt Mary’s on Christmas Day.”
- Have some fun, either as a family or in smaller groups. And make sure your kids see you and their mom are genuinely happy and in love.
Finally, if your fights become more frequent, more aggressive, or if either of you can’t control or manage your temper, get some professional counseling.
Dear Mr. Dad: My two children, 8 and 10, have never gotten along. They fight over the smallest things, so our house is a constant battleground. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry but this seems more serious. We’ve tried sitting them down and talking to them, time-outs, and such, but nothing ever changes. What can we do to make it stop?
A: Well, you can start by giving up on the idea that your kids are going to stop fighting. As parents, we want our children to get along, share, and love each other—it makes life so much easier (and quieter) if they do. But they won’t. As long as there have been siblings—all the way back to Cain and Abel—there has been sibling rivalry. Part of it has to do with competition.
Our society is based on performance and we generally reward people who outperform others. Do better in school, go to a better college. Sell more widgets, earn a trip to Hawaii. Win a championship, get a trophy (or at least one that’s bigger than what everyone else gets for just showing up). It’s understandable how siblings might feel that they have to compete with each other—for your attention, your praise, your love. And unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you can’t give your kids equal amounts.
In a lot of cases, parents (and other adults or people of authority) inadvertently encourage rivalry by favoring one child over another. They probably don’t mean to but it happens anyway. Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your brother?” or “Maybe you should try another activity. Billy is a better athlete than you are”? Or perhaps you heard someone approach the sibling of a top performing child and say, “Your sister is so amazing. It must be so great to have a sister like that”?
- There’s no way to completely stop siblings from fighting. But you can help them do it less destructively:
- Go on dates with each child, giving him or her your undivided attention.
- Don’t play favorites and don’t compare your children. They’re different people with different needs. Pay attention to those differences and act accordingly, making each child feel special in his or her own way.
- Understand that you’re going to fail sometimes. It takes an incredibly long time for kids to truly learn that “fair” and “the same” are two completely different things.
- Ask your kids—one at a time—to help you understand why they’re fighting so much. Encourage as much detail as possible (comments like, “He’s not nice to me,” or “She drives me crazy,” won’t cut it). And listen carefully to their answers. If there are legitimate issues, schedule a family meeting to talk them through.
- Establish ground rules. Arguments are okay. Physical violence and name calling are not.
- Intervene less. Jumping in—unless it’s absolutely necessary—keeps them from learning to resolve their differences on their own. If you do have to get involved, try not to take sides. Get everyone calm and then discuss the issues.
- Look on the bright side. As unpleasant as your children’s behavior is to be around, it may actually be good for them. By fighting with each other, they’re learning about empathy, negotiation, conflict resolution, effective and ineffective ways to handle arguments, and how to win gracefully and lose with dignity.
- Model good behavior. If you and your wife can argue, compromise, and make up, your kids may learn to do the same.
Dear Mr. Dad. I’m getting divorced. My spouse is acting horribly and I have to admit that I haven’t been behaving much better. I’m angry and I find myself wanting to punish him. But maintaining this level of intensity is exhausting—and I can see that it’s hurting our children. Is there a way for me to start taking the high road at this point?
A: In a word, Yes. Since you and your spouse know each other’s buttons better than anyone, it’s easy to slip into defensive, uncooperative, and hostile mode. So kudos to you for recognizing the problem and making the first move to change things.