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When is it OK to fight in front of your kids?

Claire Zulkey wonders when she'll ever get used to the idea that she has two boys. She is the author of two books for young people, An Off Year and Best Frenemies. She and her filmmaker husband live in Evanston, IL. You can find out more...

Believe it or not, there is some merit in letting your kids watch you and your spouse argue

Last week, one of my husband’s and my marital tripwires was set off when one of our sons got sent home from day care with a fever. My husband and I both work from home, which can be convenient, but also makes it difficult to drop everything and stay home for the day with a child. We have a fairly predictable fight when this happens — one borne of stress and concern that stems from a very tricky topic: Whose time and work is worth more?

As we quarreled, my 4-year-old put his hands over his ears and said, “Stop it!” Then he made us apologize to each other. You might think that would have slowed us down, but with the fight not yet over, we still bickered until our little arbiter was dropped off at preschool and we could get on with our days.

My son’s chiding made me wonder, though — were we causing him emotional harm by arguing in front of him? Or is it actually healthy and normal to show your kids what a marriage really looks like? For answers, I turned to parenting expert Joani Geltman, author of A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens.

More: How to avoid money arguments

SheKnows: Is there any upside to fighting in front of your kids?

Joani Geltman: Four year olds are very sensitive to their parents; they’re just starting to recognize emotions in themselves and others. They’re just starting to see another person’s perspective, so there is a positive side not just to seeing that people aren’t always nice to each other, but modeling forgiveness. Make sure they see you kiss and make up. But otherwise, it’s not helpful to hide arguments from your kids — otherwise when they argue with people, they’re going to feel like something’s wrong with them. Conflict is a natural part of being human. If you feel in control enough to say, “I think we need to take this into another room,” do that, but not when it’s about emptying the dishwasher. Otherwise, hiding arguments is not real life. If there’s never any conflict in a family, there’s no roadmap for what to do when there’s conflict in their own lives.

SK: But surely some arguments are not meant for kids to overhear.

JG: You wouldn’t want to talk about sex in front of them. You wouldn’t want to brawl in front of them. I don’t like to see parents degrading each other — that is a nonstarter. Calling names, very overt aggression, saying things like, “You did something to me,” — that shouldn’t be in front of the kids because that becomes more personal to the kids than just being mad at each other... They need their parents to be secure. Plus, as they get older, if that’s how kids are observing how people speak to each other, it gives them permission to be bullies. Just remember that there’s a difference between a personal argument and one between two people who have had a long and frustrating day. And nobody wants to sit in on anybody’s fight when it’s personal — and it’s very scary for a child.

More: How to argue the healthy way

SK: Should parents apologize to their children for arguing in front of them?

JG: I don’t like parents to apologize for it. Then that takes away permission for their kids to express their anger when they feel it. I think it’s more understanding their feelings and then showing them a positive resolution. If a child is upset about an argument instead of apologizing, you can say, “I see that made you feel uncomfortable and it was scary to see Mommy and Daddy fight, but we love each other and we made up. Sometimes Mommy and Daddy disagree just the same way you disagree with the way I told you to pick up your toys and you yelled at me. Sometimes we lose our tempers.”

SK: My 4-year-old tried to get us to stop arguing even though we weren’t done with our fight yet. Should we have taken his lead?

JG: Kids are very bossy at that age. You can say, “We see that you’re feeling upset,” but it’s not really his role to order you to hug each other. Say, “I love Daddy and he loves me” and kiss and make up, but not at [your son’s] request.

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