Nov. 21, 2013 at 8:14 AM ET
When attorney and sustainable living blogger Rose Forrest and her husband, Steve Podwojski, have a disagreement, they deal with it immediately — sometimes through arguing, even when in front of their three kids, ages 6, 4, and 9 months. The Pasadena, Md., mom says that, although they have ground rules such as no cursing or hitting, she and Steve committed long ago to resolve their issues as they arise.
Forrest realizes that many parents today have adopted a policy of fighting behind closed doors. But she credits the communication style she and her husband embrace as a secret to success in her 12 year marriage to Podwojski, and says their children are better communicators and more secure in their own ability to resolve conflict because of it.
“We have discussed whether we should disagree in front of the kids — I think we may have actually argued about it,” said Forrest. “I feel strongly that the kids and us are part of a team and we need to be transparent with each other. For us, the fights always get resolved.”
Is it truly possible to fight fair in front of your kids?
Dr. Henry Cloud, psychologist and author of the best-selling Boundaries book series, says that, when it comes to the question of “fighting fair” in front of our kids, we need to change the terms in which we think.
“I would like to reframe ‘fighting fair’ as ‘teaching your children how to have a relationship,’” said Cloud. “You want them to learn this skill, so do it in a way they can internalize and model and use.”
According to Cloud, the keys to modeling a healthy relationship to kids are respect, active listening, validation, and giving your own perspective. Cloud says disagreements are, indeed, a healthy part of life, and that it’s important that problem-solving skills are modeled well to children by their parents.
While disagreeing in front of kids is OK, and even healthy, Cloud emphasizes one thing to avoid: don't have angry fights. It’s important to use kindness when speaking to your spouse, and to model good listening skills by respecting and validating the other person while still articulately and calmly communicating your feelings.
“It is the anger and the adversarial tone that threatens children’s security and causes them to blame themselves,” cautioned Cloud.
Another important rule, according to Cloud, is to remember the following two caveats. First, if the discussion is about the child, or involves decisions that will affect the child, take it to private quarters. Second, if emotions are running high and feel too intense, save the discussion for later, as seeing parents that upset can be distressing for a child.
In the same vein, Cloud says that, if a discussion is too heated, parents should create pre-arranged signals that let their partner know the conversation should be shelved for later, in a more private setting.
“Respect your child’s basic need for security, and be sure they know that their parents are secure in their relationship and ‘for’ each other as opposed to ‘against,’” said Cloud, adding that the problem lies in giving your kids the ‘against’ impression.
For Forrest and her husband, the notion of being “for” each other and their family lies at the heart of their communication style, and the pair is confident that their children have benefited from seeing healthy conflict and resolution styles modeled in their home— even when voices are raised.
“A few months ago, my four-year-old interrupted a heated discussion with, ‘Mommy, don’t fight with Daddy. He loves you, and you guys are married,’ said Forrest. She adds that her daughter’s statement made she and her husband laugh, causing them to forget what they were arguing about in the first place.