Is it ever okay to argue in front of your children?
John Meagherand Heidi Scrimgeour argue Yes and No.
John Meagherand Heidi Scrimgeour argue Yes and No.
John Meager says No
I'm not a psychologist but I can't imagine any universe in which it's a good idea for parents to argue in front of young children.
As a parent of two daughters - one two-and-a-half, the other almost four months - my wife and I make every effort possible not to argue in their presence. To bicker in front of them is bad parenting - and no argument will convince me otherwise.
The notion of children being like sponges, and absorbing everything, is absolutely true as far as I can see. Not only does the older girl parrot back everything we say - including an F-word I let slip by accident last week - but she seems to be affected by the moods of those around her.
If we're happy, she's happy too. If one of us is upset about something - like the death of my grandmother a couple of weeks ago - she picks up on that as well. So it's a definite no-no to squabbling and worse.
Parenting books talk about the first three years as being formative from an environmental point of view and I think they're spot on. We may not remember much about that period of our lives, but it's likely to have played a huge part in our make-up.
I only need to recall various people I've met over the years who talk about the scars they still bear from their parents' arguments. Some of them blame this exposure for their own short-temper as adults, others say they still feel cowed in conflict situations because it's a throw-back to when they were kids and their parents were constantly at each other's throats.
I'm far from a perfect parent and anybody who knows me will be aware of my propensity for arguments (and no, it's not down to my parents arguing in front of me when I was growing up, because they didn't), but I really do believe it is important to make children's lives as pleasant as possible and to shield them in their formative years from the nastiness of the world.
Of course, there are times when my wife and I argue - neither of us is a Stepford Wife, or Husband - but, as much as possible, we do it when are children are in bed. If there is a disagreement that could tip over into raised voices, we find it best to say, 'Not now - we'll talk about this later'.
A happy side-effect of postponing an argument is the heat is likely to have gone out of it by the time we do get to talk it over.
Some parents might excuse a propensity for arguing in front of their children by pointing out that the world isn't quite the happy place portrayed in Balamory or Ben & Holly, but by not arguing in their presence you get to prolong their childhood innocence that bit longer. Surely that should be the goal of any parent, especially as we live in an age when that innocence is being shortened all the time?
I'm planning on taking my stance about arguing to other aspects of my life around my children too. I will be very careful not to impart to them any financial worries I might have - the last thing I want to do is have them grow up and not feel secure. Again, I'm aware of people who picked up on their parents' anxiety about money and let it affect them. Often, that worry continues with them to this day and they too have a heightened fear about lack of money and/or security.
Let's be realistic, though: despite the best-laid plans, sometimes you'll find yourself arguing with your partner when the children are around. All is not lost, however. Making up properly in front of the kids leaves them with a happy resolution and demonstrates that while arguments happen, they can be resolved easily.
YES, SAYS HEIDI SCRIMGEOUR
If you’ve ever argued with your partner in front of your children, the current ChildLine advert could make for uncomfortable viewing. Over the sound of a child tearfully pleading for someone at ChildLine to pick up the phone, we hear a couple arguing. It’s frightening; the kind of explosive row that you hope isn’t normal in the average family household.
Nonetheless, it made me momentarily question my belief that arguing in front of children is acceptable. I am convinced that it’s good for children to see that people can love one another and yet still disagree, and even feel anger or frustration without that necessarily calling into question their commitment or affection. But I began to wonder whether children might take something very different from hearing their parents argue.
However, my sudden fear that my refusal to ‘sanitise’ occasional domestic discord might be doing the children some harm was soon put to flight by my nine-year-old. Yes, it’s “annoying” when we bicker — invariably about who had the car keys last or “how untidy Daddy is” — but he literally laughed at the notion that he might suffer some damage as a result of those disagreements. Thus, I remain convinced that arguing in front of my kids isn’t just permissible; it’s downright good for them.
A child who can already see the funny side of his parents’ petty squabbles is one who has surely learned that conflict isn’t something to be feared, repressed — or taken too seriously.
Of course, there’s a world of difference between parents bickering in front of the kids over something that the child understands isn’t of lasting significance, and the kind of violent conflict depicted in the ChildLine campaign.
But when it comes to my own home, I’m not going to divert from my usual procedure when it comes to conflict with my husband, which is to let the row run its course without hiding any of it. My best defence for arguing in front of them is the impact they have on us in the heat of the moment. There’s nothing quite like a pre-teen rolling his eyes and beseeching you in his most exasperated tone of voice to ‘Please stop squabbling’ for nipping a pointless row in the bud.
Obviously I’d never rely on my children’s intervention in an argument with my husband, but refusing to sweep things under the carpet for their benefit when a disagreement unfolds means their very presence has a natural peace-building effect. I believe that it has been good for them to admonish us when we’re bickering, and to see us acknowledge their wisdom and reign ourselves in accordingly. They’ve also witnessed what forgiveness looks like.
To me there’s something disturbingly clinical about pressing pause on a marital row and coolly scheduling a time to return to it once the kids are tucked up in bed. What if those children wake up and overhear something so unfamiliar as Mummy and Daddy fighting, in a context where that’s never witnessed in the light of day?
Ultimately. we argue in front of our children because we understand our primary task as parents is to model what healthy, hopeful adulthood looks like. We let them glimpse the silly rows, petty grievances and even the bad-tempered moments of real immaturity because I believe that my kids will treat themselves more kindly when they encounter moments like that of their own, if they’ve witnessed Mum and Dad in all their flawed, imperfect glory.
Far more sinister to me are the partnerships where never a harsh word is spoken, and conflict is avoided at all costs. In what possible way does that equip a child for life as an adult in a world where arguments are an inevitability?