As parents, we're always being advised: Don't fight in front of children! Ideally, this is sound advice, but we aren't robots, and chances are that eventually we will have disagreements when the kids are around. When that happens, instead of feeling guilty, why not use the moment as a way to teach healthy conflict resolution through our own behavior?
A conflict by itself neither destroys a marriage nor depresses the kids. It is how people handle disagreements, and the ensuing anger, that causes problems. Happy families know how to settle disputes without leaving open wounds. Skillful parents can model conflict resolution skills every day.
The following is an example of such modeling that took place at a Passover celebration at the home of Lea and Jonathan and their three children: 18-month-old Ben, preschooler Hannah, and first-grader Becky:
It is tradition to sit on cushions at the Passover Seder. Little Ben did not want to, and was throwing tantrums, delaying the Seder. Lea said to Jonathan: "Ben does not feel comfortable sitting on the cushion."
Jonathan replied, "I know, but I feel it is important for him to learn the tradition."
Lea: "I hear what you are saying, and I want the same, but I hate to keep everybody without food any longer."
Then Jonathan turned to the children and said with a smile, "You guys heard Mommy and me talking about you, Ben. I think that Ben should sit on the cushion, and Mommy also wants him to. But Mommy feels very bad because Ben's behavior delays the Seder. What do we do?"
Hannah said, "If Ben doesn't sit on his cushion, and we do, it's not fair." And Becky declared: "I'm hungry. Let him sit without the cushion."
There was a pause, and even little Ben stopped crying. Lea whispered something to Jonathan, and after he nodded, she said: "I have a solution. How about starting the Seder without a cushion for Ben, but later we'll try to talk him into doing it just for a short time? Since we all want to keep the tradition, we will help Ben learn it."
Then Jonathan concluded: " Thank you, Mommy, for being so wise!"
Jonathan was grateful to Lea for being able to hear him and respect his opinion, and for finding a compromise. By including the children in the discussion, he normalized the situation. And by giving them the opportunity to express their opinions, Lea and Jonathan invited them into a problem resolution process.
Imagine a different version of the same situation — one that could have resulted in a painful quarrel:
Lea: "Let him sit the way he wants to!"
Jonathan (to children): "Could you guys go play in the living room? I need to talk to your mom."
Lea (after the children leave): "What is a big deal with these cushions? Everybody's hungry and you are holding people up…"
Jonathan: "This is the way I grew up, and I expect you at least to respect it!"
Instead, both parents went through all the stages of healthy conflict resolution:
—Stating their positions
—Listening to each other and confirming that they heard it correctly (I hear what you are saying, I want the same)
—Summarizing (both Mommy and I want the same, but Mommy thinks…)
—Negotiating (with Hannah's and Becky's participation), and
—Celebrating a solution (Thank you, Mommy!).
Of course, not every topic can be discussed in front of the children. If you feel you need privacy, say: "Daddy (or Mommy) and I disagree on this. Do you mind if we go upstairs for a while? Don't worry — we are fine. We simply need to talk it out."
Children worry about their parents' relationship. With divorce so prevalent, even a slight argument between parents — even those in harmonious, two-parent households — might raise anxiety in their children. Explaining and normalizing the situation can go a long way to alleviating their concern.
MARIA TEVEROVSKY teaches family communication and conflict resolution, working with couples and families as a relationship consultant and/or mediator. She is in private practice with offices in Manhattan and Westchester County. Teverovsky is also a trained family and divorce mediator. She also specializes in helping intercultural and interfaith families come to satisfying agreements on parenting and other aspects of their family lives. Contact her at (914) 980-6470; www.mediatewithmaria.com.