The argument for arguing in front of your kids

Exposure to healthy debate has been linked to creative thinking in children – but there’s a right and a wrong way to argue around young ears. We ask two experts how to keep our combat constructive.

Parents, it’s time to step out from behind that united front – certainly if you intend on raising a creative thinker. So says Adam Grant, a psychologist at The Wharton School who suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t always bite our tongues. “Children need to learn the value of thoughtful disagreement,” he writes in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones… We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync. There’s no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out — and to take it.”

But before you unleash on your significant other in the presence of small people, hold fire. There’s a bounty of research linking high-conflict homes to children having greater levels of stress, anxiety, behavioural issues and developmental delays. Even infants have been shown to have increased blood pressure when in earshot of their folks fighting.

“Babies and toddlers are perceptive and they are impacted by the emotional climate of their environments. So while they may not understand the content of a disagreement, they do feel the tension between adults,” says Manhattan-based psychotherapist and child specialist Dr Dana Dorfman, who is all for arguing in front of your kids if it’s done in a “thoughtful and developmentally sensitive manner”.

“Human beings should not always see eye to eye, so parents can model tolerance, acceptance and effective communication of thoughts and feelings when they disagree. This is an invaluable life skill for kids to observe and internalize from parents.”

Across the bridge, Brooklyn-based mental health counsellor Amy Lenclos says: “When we can establish a clear goal for connection while in disagreement, we can confidently differentiate from our partner in a more open and safe manner, increasing the opportunity to grow and change together. When we argue in this way, we model for children that disagreeing is something we can do boldly, yet safely.”

We asked Dana and Amy how to fight the good (kind of) fight, and here’s what they said:

KEEP IT SIMPLE

“Parents should be conscious of children’s interpretations of conflict in the home,” says Dana, explaining that kids are unable to understand the complexities and nuances of disagreements (they don’t detect sarcasm til around age six, for example). “They benefit from a simplified translation of conflicts and reassurance of repair.” So less silent treatment, more clear communication. Capiche?

STAY OPEN

Storming off in a huff doesn’t serve you – or your youngsters. “When we argue, we tend to tense up and construct barriers to ‘protect’ ourselves, but that brings us out of connection, into isolation, which can lead us towards anger, disappointment and other negative feelings,” says Amy. “Arguing does not only mean being at locked odds with others, it can also encourage learning from the other, despite our differences.”

OWN YOUR EMOTIONS

“Children benefit from hearing parents label their emotions and take ownership for their respective parts of the exchange,” says Dana, suggesting statements like “I feel frustrated that…” as an effective way to own your feelings and describe your emotions. “This provides healthy role-modeling for kids that may be woven into the family’s communication.”

IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT

It’s no secret that children think the world revolves around them. “In an unconscious effort to preserve positive relationships with parents, coupled with the inherent and age-appropriate egocentrism of childhood, children often blame themselves for parents’ disagreements,” says Dana. “It is important that parents reassure children that their fighting is not the child’s fault.”

DON’T MAKE YOUR CHILD REFEREE

Kids should never be drawn into or invited to participate in parental disputes, “particularly if the topic is about a family issue,” Dana stresses. “If parents are expressing differing views about something innocuous and non-threatening – like the best flavour of ice-cream – then a child can be invited to participate in a playful way.”

COMPROMISE IS KEY

Rather than trying to ‘win’ an argument, listen and respond respectfully to your partner’s point of view. “[This] helps us take the focus off our position and desires to be ‘right’, and encourages us to listen more deeply for places of agreement which is, ultimately, preparation for constructive participation in the world,” says Amy.

COME TO A RESOLUTION

Dana suggests following up a quarrel with a simple statement such as: ‘Sometimes mommies and daddies disagree, but we still love each other’. “It is helpful for children to see parents make reparations – a hug, apology, or expression of understanding.” And hey, who doesn’t love a happy ending?