It was always a hard and fast rule: Never fight in front of the children. But, like all rigid rules, there is often a need for flexibility and moderation.
While all experts agree that serious arguments should not occur with children present – no yelling, screaming, or even the silent treatment; no discussion of the future of the relationship or the children’s disciplinary needs – many psychologists, counselors and educators now believe that children need to see some disagreements – and some amicable conflict resolution.
Children who have never seen their parents argue, who in fact believe it never happens, may be ill-equipped for life’s challenges.
Tensions, disagreements and compromise are the stuff of all relationships, be they familial, friendships, work-related or marital. Children need to know that some type of “fighting” is normal so that they won’t be shocked and troubled the first time they encounter it, so that they will have the psychological tools they need to cope with the stress, and so that they will be prepared practically with strategies for compromise.
Children need to see that a relationship can not only withstand disagreements but can even sometimes be strengthened by them. Parents need to model non-acrimonious quarreling, calm negotiation and warm and affectionate conflict resolution. Children need to see that it can be done.
It is impossible to live with another human being and not fight. Siblings fight. Parents and children fight. Roommates fight. Husbands and wives fight. It’s an inevitable by-product of sharing our lives with others. It is foolish, unreasonable and naïve to expect a conflict-free existence.
Children are hurt when we lose control.
The key is how we deal with conflict. Some people feel that their family has to present a perfect image to the outside world. They have a lot invested in external perceptions and they may browbeat their children into unnatural behavior to preserve this fairy tale. Not only does this damage their children but they make a serious mistake in their understanding of reality.
The mark of a human being is not in the idealized picture he or she presents to others, that brief, momentary snapshot, but in how they deal day in and day out with life’s constant challenges.
When our child spills his milk, do we scold him and send him, humiliated, to his room or do we just grab some paper towels and clean it, recognizing that it is really no big deal?
When a new ceramic bowl is accidentally dropped and broken (or hit with that errant ball), do we yell at the child, accusing them of clumsiness, or do we calmly sweep it up, a smile on our face?
If our spouse says or does something annoying, are we able to remain cheerful, tabling the necessary conversation for later?
This is the example we want to set. These are the actions that speak louder than words.
And if we do lose our temper (despite all admonitions to the contrary), do we later apologize? And do our children hear us do so?
Children aren’t harmed by fighting per se. They’re hurt when we lose control. Angry parents, even drunk parents, terrify children. But parents who remain calm and collected as they work through their differences, even the serious ones, teach their children crucial life lessons.
Now if I could only meet those ideal parents….