Not in front of the children

31 May 2011, by Phillip Hodson
Some say you should never, never argue in front of the kids. But is it better to wait until they’re in bed, listening to the screaming and door slamming? Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson says not.

Arguing in front of the kids is OK. Within limits. Film still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Of course you should conduct rows in front of your children! How else are they ever going to learn the art of managing you? Or find the confidence to question thugs and bullies? Or to accept that human beings are a bit like cars, except run on emotions?

But what you don’t want to do is scare your kids witless with a badly managed row where you mow down their feelings at 90mph in a family hit and run.

The worst moment I can recall growing up was when the nature of our rows went from altercation to head-on smash.

Normally in my house, Dad and I would argue ferociously against Mum and older sister, who would usually resort to a great deal of sarcasm plus mild physical violence. Nothing to worry about. All forgotten in the morning. So far, so everyday.

But on this one scary occasion Mum threw a major wobbly and lambasted the lot of us. It was suddenly Dad and Sis and Me against Mum, and it felt like the end.

We’d obviously caught her at an insecure moment when we sent her steamed jam pudding back to the kitchen saying it was rubbish. Not even sister could eat the putty and custard on offer – hence the feeling of betrayal. Mum raged about ungrateful kids and feckless Dads who’d only be happy if she left. There were tears and big sulks.

Not only did I think “It’s divorce!”, my Dad made me kiss my sister for the first time ever, to show the family was not falling apart, which I haven’t forgiven him for yet.

By contrast, the kind of rows children find useful are those proving that people with a pulse will not always agree with one another and often want to do different things at different times. The nature of the row (because conducted with moderation) teaches them the arts of negotiation and compromise.

For those who run a mile from conflict, let me be cruel. When two people say they haven’t had a cross word in 20 years – above all in front of the children – I want to die. It’s a recipe for a coma.

But ‘good’ rows need rules:

1. Don’t go for the jugular. If you prove your partner is an idiot then you’re the idiot who picked her.

2. You cannot choose your feelings but you can choose your reactions. Walk away for a while. Shut up for a bit. Or buy time by asking to hear the rest of the charges while you choose what if anything to reply.

3. Be assertive not aggressive.

4. Train the family to say, “But I do love you” and “I’m really sorry”. The first time a child apologises for his or her crimes will make your heart sing.

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