When I was growing up, I saw my parents argue exactly twice. Once over part of the newspaper, and I can’t remember the other topic, but it wasn’t earth shattering. And even though I knew my parents weren’t necessarily happy in their marriage, the announcement when I was a teenager that they were splitting up came as something of a surprise. After all, I almost never saw them argue.
My parents weren’t very good at communication in general and conflict in particular. They were both experts at bottling up emotion and sweeping issues under the rug. I learned from this example, but it wasn’t necessarily a good lesson to learn. I still struggle with appropriate expression of intense emotion, though I have made great strides. It’s not a lesson I want to pass on to my kids.
Setting the example
As such I’ve pondered often how much conflict kids should see between their parents. What is the appropriate example to set? Should kids think disagreements between parents never happen? While I think most of us can agree that parents who argue constantly aren’t healthy for kids (or themselves for that matter), I think kids do need examples set for them on appropriate conflict resolution by their greatest influences — their parents. And in particular I think that kids need to know that you can disagree with and argue with someone — even be really angry at them — and still love them. And not hold a grudge later.
At some point before actually having children my husband and I talked about this and generally agreed that as long as we weren’t having an over-the-top, heated, name-calling kind of an argument, perhaps allowing our children to see us disagree — and still love one another — wouldn’t be so awful. We wanted the kids to understand some of the normal highs and lows of a loving relationship — and see us work through them to a positive, better other side.
The thing is, even if the topic of the disagreement was minor, my kids became really upset when my husband and I argued in their presence. We would spend more time reassuring them and addressing their fears long after the initial disagreement was resolved. At some point we realized our naive ideas about this were just that — naive.
Addressing tension — without a fight
Kids are smart – they sense tension in a relationship. Whether or not you and your partner argue in front of them, they can sense when something isn’t quite right. Thinking back to my own childhood, I can identify many, many times when my parents’ marriage wasn’t particularly calm, yet there wasn’t a single argument during those times.
My husband realized we probably can achieve the same goal of demonstrating healthy conflict resolution to the kids by addressing the issues with them when there is tension. We can acknowledge the tension and say, “Yes, we disagree on a couple of things, but we are working them through because we love each other enough to do that.” Then we can tell them how we are working it through — by talking, careful thought and consideration, and compromise — and reassure the kids that it has nothing to do with them and they have nothing to worry about.
While I still struggle with effective communication at times, thinking about how to set the best example for my kids has made me better. We don’t need to argue in front of them for them to learn conflict resolution, nor do we need to deny that conflict does sometimes exist. We’re human, after all!