Let it out: Why fighting in the open might be better than hiding it

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Illustration: Matt Pamer Illustration: Matt Pamer

I vividly recall a major blowup my parents had when I was about 6 years old. I was in our basement family room, watching Saturday morning cartoons. They were upstairs shouting and throwing dishes. I’d witnessed harsh words and muffled arguments between them before, but this sounded like bedlam.

Once the noise finally subsided, I tiptoed upstairs, full of curiosity and concern, to find broken pieces of china littering the kitchen floor. I stood there horrified until my parents emerged from the bathroom teary-eyed, with their arms draped affectionately around each other.

“What happened?” I asked them.

“Nothing,” said Mom with an obvious sniffle. “I accidentally broke some dishes. Go watch your cartoons, sweetheart.”

Apparently they’d reconciled, but I was still devastated and confused.

We may have the best intentions in shielding our children from marital conflict, and of course it would be better if parents never fought, but child development experts say it’s futile to try hiding everyday disagreements from the kids. In most cases, children are acutely aware of the tension even if they don’t understand the specifics of the arguments. But that’s not necessarily the problem. What’s worse, say the experts, is that by trying to hide the situation from them, we deny our children the ability to witness that we resolved the conflict and how.

If parents begin to bicker at the dinner table, for example, but quickly decide to “discuss it later,” the children never see the resolution and may continue to harbor anxieties about it. Moreover, even if parents think they’re being discrete, it’s likely they’re modeling all kinds of ways to belittle, insult, or accuse, but very few ways to apologize, concede, or make up.

I was confronted with my own failures in this regard one morning with my own 6-year-old. My husband and I had had a disagreement the night before and had assumed the children—who sleep like logs once they finally succumb—had missed the whole business. I went ahead, however, and asked my daughter if she’d overheard us arguing. She nodded and said, “I don’t like it when you and Daddy fight,” as if what she’d heard the previous night was not the anomaly for her that we had believed.

While I wish she’d never observe an unkind word or look from anyone anywhere or experience her own home as anything other than the love nest of safety I yearn for it to be, that likely is impossible with two working parents, two young children competing for attention from those parents, mortgages, college funds, car repairs, school volunteer obligations, a New Year’s resolution to make more green smoothies, and all the other complexities of this modern life. There is bound to be some discord over who forgot to do, pay, or order something and who feels more overworked and underappreciated in any given week. I’m quite sure the dog is feeling the most slighted of all, but fortunately he’s too old to bark much about it these days.

On the whole, I hope that my children experience their home as a place of emotional security and that when conflicts do arise, they see positive examples of compromise and reconciliation and that Mom and Dad do kiss and make up. They could probably do without the kissing part, but I’m an overachiever so they will have to deal with it.

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