It’s no secret that children, from the youngest to the oldest, see and internalize their parents’ behavior– good, bad and indifferent. I know I’ve personally heard my older son use phrases directly lifted from me, complete with my own tone of voice, to try to reprimand his younger brother. For a long time, I worried that as parents it was so important to always be on our “A-Game” for this reason. If I get frustrated and snap at my kids, they’ll grow up to be impatient adults who don’t think before they speak. If I get annoyed at my husband or best friend or mother they’ll pick up on this and copy my anger. I spent a long time thinking that adults should put on their best face for their children and handle disagreements calmly and discretely. Parents should save tiffs for when the kids are in bed, and they should never in argue front of them. Is this true? Only partly.
It is entirely true that parents are their child’s first– and always most important– teachers. They’re watching you and learning about how people behave by doing so. Of course, we as parents want them to see us behaving well, being polite, and showing kindness to others because of this, and certainly, our job is to make them feel safe above all else. However, parents aren’t doing their children any favors by always tabling more “unpleasant” feelings for when their kids are out of earshot. On the contrary, it can be helpful and quite valuable for children to see their parents model how to handle frustration, anger, and discord appropriately.
As someone who spent many hours in high school watching MTV’s “Real World”, and as someone who was housebound with my family for four consecutive days due to last week’s blizzard, I can tell you that it is impossible to be under the same roof as other people for an extended period of time and never argue about anything.
However, just as we teach our kids to pick up after themselves and help around the house, we need to teach them how to fight fair. Conflict in life is inevitable. People have different life experiences and personalities, and we can’t always be expected to get along. It’s not reasonable to only teach our kids “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything.” Speak your mind when it matters! Be heard! But do it respectfully.
I remember reading this article in the NY Times a few years back which summed up my thoughts on this matter perfectly. Constructive fighting, that is, disagreeing respectfully, remaining calm, and working to resolve the conflict, can teach kids how to navigate these tricky situations in their own lives. Seeing that two people can be angry at each other but remain in control, discuss the problem, and reach a solution is an awesome thing to show your kids. It’s even okay to snap sometimes if you apologize after and acknowledge that you wish you’d done things differently.
So don’t stress if you and your family don’t always agree on everything, and don’t try to hide your feelings when you’re upset about something, but do work on thinking about what you’re modeling. Kids can handle seeing occasional discord as long as they learn how to resolve it peacefully in the end. In some ways, this might be the most important thing your kids learn from you!