My three-year-old son’s teacher approached me with a stifled smile. She asked how my drive into school was that morning. I eyed her suspiciously and told her, “Today I am thankful for good brakes, this guy stopped short in front of me…” “I know,” she said, now laughing loudly. “Tucker told the whole class what you yelled as you slammed on those brakes!” I turned crimson. Out of the mouths of babes. Man! Those little ears don’t miss a thing! I mentally said the word again, yeah, it starts with an “s” and rhymes with “hit.”
I guess the point is, we are most mindful of what we say in front of our children during moments of calm and clarity. This begs the question, are we as careful with communication in moments of conflict? The answer is—rarely. I learned a valuable lesson that day. “Children seldom misquote you. They usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.” ~ Unknown
So, should parents fight in front of their children? The obvious answer is no. When tempers are engaged, judgment is in jeopardy. Harsh words and tension are not healthy in any home environment. Countless studies have shown the negative impact sustained stress levels have on the developing child, both mentally and physically. Equally harmful are the long-term emotional effects and constructs a child establishes. One construct is their perception of what relationships “should” be like in their future. Ask yourself, is this what I want for my child’s marriage?
But see, here’s the thing: if you are human (and I’m hoping you are), you know that conflict happens. Oh sure, we might dress it up, calling it a discussion, a disagreement or a conflicting opinion, but a fight is a fight, and even the happiest families are going to have them. Conflicts can be either “constructive,” meaning there are good lessons here, or conflicts can be “destructive.”
E.Mark Cummings and Patrick Davies, authors of Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, say that a destructive conflict might look like this:
- Verbal aggression, like name-calling, insults and threats of abandonment;
- Physical aggression, like hitting and pushing;
- Silent tactics, like avoidance, walking out, sulking or withdrawing;
- Capitulation—giving in that might look like a solution, but isn’t a true one.
- Mark Cummings, a noted psychologist at Notre Dame University, says “Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important, it’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel, that has important consequences for children.” He believes that when children observe some conflicts (“constructive”), this can actually be good for children. “When children see their parents resolve difficult problems,” Cummings says, “they can grow up better off.”
“Constructive” conflicts will provide children with the opportunity to see how conflicts can be resolved in real life. Having a set of established Rules of Engagement will help, something like these:
- Strive for calm and thoughtful dialog in which both parties have an opportunity to present their points.
- Avoid insults, name calling, violent outbursts, walking away.
- Stick to the topic at hand, avoid past arguments or transgressions.
- Realize that beyond mutual understanding, the ultimate goal may be compromise.
- Resolve to resolve the conflict!
(NOTE: If tempers begin to flare we will agree to table the discussion and return to it when we are calm)
So, should we fight in front of our kids? It appears that if our conflicts are handled properly they can be a great learning tool. Done right, these can do more good than harm. “When kids witness a fight, and see parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” Cummings says. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through.”
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