Is it bad to argue in front of your kids? (Was: apologize to someone you’ve wronged.)

Is it bad to argue in front of your kids?

Benjamin Zander, the author of The Art of Possibility (My review: The book that changed my life the day I read it), has started a meme promoted by Miguel and Jeffrey Stedfast, to apologize to someone you’ve wronged.

My first instinct was to apologize to my kids for arguing in front of them. When we do that it really bothers me and I wonder how it affects them. However, according to NurtureShock by Po Bronson (recommended by Cathy Malmrose), while hearing parents argue stresses kids out, if they hear the end of the argument (and hopefully two happy parents) they go back to feeling normal stress levels. And they learn about conflict resolution. But if you “take the argument upstairs” and they don’t hear the resolution, they remain stressed.

So perhaps I should now have a discussion with Frank about how we argue in front of the kids. I sent them to their rooms and when that didn’t work Frank sent them to watch tv (which was a better distraction but still not enough.)

But if I let the kids watch an argument I have to answer all sorts of very difficult questions. I regularly get asked about why our old car couldn’t be fixed, why owls eat rabbits, why cars need gas, why we can’t have cookies for breakfast, why I wear contacts, why we have to wear clean clothes, why our dog will die one day … and explaining why we were arguing about whatever we were arguing about … well I just want to say “go to your room”! So perhaps the real apology I owe to my kids is for lazily not wanting to explain the argument to them.

But really, there are some subjects you’d rather not get asked why about too much …

7 Replies to “Is it bad to argue in front of your kids? (Was: apologize to someone you’ve wronged.)”

  1. Hi,

    I stumbled upon your post, and I hope you don’t mind that I respond.

    Researchers have found that kids are so upset about parents fighting, that they would rather parents be angry at them, than each other. They don’t know how to diffuse a tense situation, so instead, they try to draw the fire to themselves: by around five, seven years old, they will start interjecting themselves into an argument. So they will distract the parent, or even get the parents yelling at them, rather than each other. At least that way the parents’ argument is over. Perhaps some version of that is going on with the kids’ inane, off-topic questions?

    Just thought that might be something to think about.

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful post (and thanks to Cathy for recommending our book!!),
    Ashley Merryman

    1. Thanks for joining the conversation, Ashley! I am really enjoying the book!

      I should have been clear – the random questions are at other times. The questions during the argument are about the argument. But he still might be trying to distract … that’s a really good point.

  2. I find that if you are doing something to avoid an awkward/difficult conversation with your kids, you’re doing it wrong. That feeling you get when you know this will prompt some discussion with your kids that you don’t feel like having, or don’t want to deal with right now, you should take that feeling as an indicator that you should drive forward rather than pull away.

    I’ll admit, as a parent I don’t always follow that advice, but it’s certainly the goal.

  3. Here’s an idea: don’t argue.

    I personally don’t seriously argue or fight with my husband more than 2-3 times a year. The rest of the time, it’s just normal, and only elevates a bit higher if my husband comes stressed from work. But usually, things are fine.

    If you find that you’re arguing all the time, then it might be a good idea to sit down with your husband and go through your problems for real, make amends, and both change your behaviors towards each other. I don’t know how much you argue, but if it’s too often, you have bigger problems than just the kids’ occasional stress levels.

    1. Hmm. Well, I wouldn’t say we argue often, but often is relative.

      That said, disagreements in life are normal. I would argue if you are not arguing with your husband, than something is wrong. 🙂

      People disagree at work, at home, in where to go to eat, … while some things are very easily resolved, others are life changing and require discussion. Those discussions that are life changing (which religion do you raise the kids in, should you take the new job, …) often get intense. It’s natural and normal.

  4. >I would argue if you are not arguing with your husband, than something is wrong

    As I said, we do, but it’s very rare.

    >Those discussions that are life changing (which religion do you raise the kids in, should you take the new job, …) often get intense.

    Never had such problems. The few times my husband changed jobs in the past we talked about it briefly, since we both agreed that it was for the best. There was not much disagreement to argue about. As for which religion, how about you allow your kids to be free thinkers and decide for themselves when they get older? Just give them some objective guidelines about all the major religions, and let them decide later.

    I’m sorry for being such a pain, it’s just that I don’t see the big deal about these arguments. I believe there’s always a logical course to follow.

  5. Recently, my mother-in-law and I got into a fight on Facebook. My children knew nothing of it (of course, it had happened on Facebook). However, a week later, my mother-in-law came into my home, quite angry, and started to yell and fight with me, in front of my children. I didn’t think about the impact it would have on them until afterwards, when they were both visibly upset and seriously confused.

    I, personally, don’t think that children NEED to be a party to arguments. There are ways to teach them conflict resolution without hashing it out with heavy emotions and forcing them to witness something they can neither control nor completely understand, especially if the topic matter involves things they just cannot grasp at their age.

    And unless the kids are in danger or there is an impending NEED to immediately address the topic, why would you have to send them away or distract them? Just say “we’ll discuss it later” and make a date to discuss those topics when kids are not able to know about it, like after they go to bed.

    Yes, disagreements will happen, and they should. It’s important for your spouse to know and understand your point of view, and it’s equally important for you and your spouse to discuss those differences and try to work things out, but if you feel your emotions getting out of control, it’s best to show your kids that, sometimes, forcing the issue when you can’t control your temper is not the way to do it.

    The best thing you could ever teach a child is to say “I don’t HAVE to fight because I am angry.” After all, do you want to teach the kids that it’s OK to lose your cool and apologize later, or that it’s better to remain calm and discuss things politely?

    As for what happened with my MIL, she ranted, raved, chased me down, hurled insults at me, insulted my mother (who was not even there at the time), and tried to goad me into an argument. I told her, frankly, that I didn’t want to fight with her unless we could keep it civil, and then refused to engage her when I felt she was no longer in control of her emotions (and the argument ended soon thereafter).

    The memory my kids have of that argument was, in my twelve-year-old’s words, “Grandma had an attitude and just wanted to fight. I’m glad you didn’t fight with her, Mom.”

    Stating a disagreement is one thing; arguing implies allowing negative emotions to take over.

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