Fern Britton caused a bit of a stir this week with her statement that parents arguing in front of their kids is a good thing; there was a lot of outrage expressed about her “irresponsible” comments. And perhaps they were a bit glib – parents who don’t argue in front of the kids are ‘boring’ apparently – but I’m in general agreement with Fern that it’s not realistic to expect parents never to row in front of their children and that it can be a good thing (as I argued on the radio this week, listen here at about 01.47.00).
I instinctively mistrust any arguments that promote ‘perfection’ as a realistic, desirable and achievable goal for parents who are, after all, imperfect human beings like everyone else. I think total opposition to parents arguing in front of their kids is rooted in the idea that children are very fragile, and perhaps based on an image of children cowering in bed listening to their parents scream at each other in the kitchen downstairs – an image that probably many of us have in our heads from our own childhoods. Clearly, it matters how you argue, you don’t want to be screaming a stream of obscenities at each other, but then, you’d try hard not to do that anyway wouldn’t you? You’re the grown-ups. There’s a huge difference between having a heated argument and bullying, controlling and abusive behaviour.
It’s also a personality thing; some parents are naturally peaceful and others thrive on disagreement and argument. I have observed families that are always arguing with each other, sometimes quite heatedly, but their arguments clear the air, they forgive and move on quickly. These can be very loving families – it’s just their way of doing things – and that always looks healthier to me than those who suppress their feelings out of fear of damaging the kids and hold on to them while resentment gradually builds. The danger is, if there’s something bothering you which you don’t feel you’re allowed to say, then it can fester and the bad vibes will be apparent to everyone in the family until it eventually comes out in a more destructive way. I think children can be made more anxious by the things which are left unspoken but create a tense atmosphere in the home than by an upfront honest argument.
It’s not so much the arguments themselves that cause the anxiety for children, but the silence around them. When we have a huge row in the kitchen, then find the children sitting in a scared little huddle in the living-room having heard it all, we shouldn’t tip-toe around them pretending nothing has happened, as if that would protect them. We only need say “That probably sounded a bit serious but don’t worry. Mummy and Daddy disagree on things sometimes but we always work it out. We know how to do that, we’re the adults.” That’s generally all the information children need to feel reassured, we don’t need to make it into a huge deal by grovelling with guilty apologies which make the argument sound much more serious than it really is. Although it’s our responsibility to control our feelings to the extent that we don’t yell something at our partner which we later regret, even if we do that occasionally we can explain to our children “Sometimes when you feel really upset you can say things in the heat of the moment that you don’t mean, then you feel bad about it afterwards and say sorry.”
If we are open with our children about the reality of arguments and disagreements we demystify a part of life which can be scary for them. We can show them that arguments need not destroy us, that we do our best, sometimes make mistakes, but eventually work things out. Parents arguing in front of their kids can teach those kids a lot and help them to be more resilient to the more difficult parts of life. Saying you should never do it just seems a bit extreme. It’s not a black and white argument is it?