A young man told me he and his mother clash because they both need to be right. I said it is hard to have a discussion if you can’t listen to the other person and he replied that he listens but continues to try to prove that he is right. Family arguments between siblings, between children and parents, and between parents are a familiar source of concern. Parents intervene in children’s fights and in the face of strong disagreements between themselves are quick to say that they don’t argue in front of the children.
In recent times a great deal has been written about the question of resilience in children. The prevalence of serious anxiety in high school and college students has become a matter of concern to educators as is the seeming dependence of young people on their parents. The cell phone has been deemed the new umbilical cord and the term “helicopter parents” embodies an indictment of parents as the cause.
Also indicted is the widespread concern on college campuses about attempts to prohibit controversial speakers as well as the demand for trigger warnings, alerting students to course material that might be threatening to them in some way.
In the wake of such concerns has come a flood of prescriptions about how to make children toughen up. Criticism has been leveled at the softening of competition in order to make everyone a winner. The importance of allowing children to fail has been stressed, as well as a problem with too much praise, such as “good job,” whether deserved or not.
Now Adam Grant, a psychology professor at the Wharton School, advances the idea that family arguments are a good thing, that children should be allowed to fight and that parents should not keep their disagreements behind closed doors. His view is that never being exposed to disagreements not only limits children’s creativity but causes them to shy away from the threat of conflict. Witnessing arguments and participating in them helps grow a thicker skin.
Adam suggests that the skill is to have a good argument that doesn’t get personal and that children need to learn the value of thoughtful disagreement. The problem is that most family conflicts are extremely personal and rarely lead to thoughtful disagreement. Disagreements that turn argumentative are usually not about public policy.
Parental disagreements are often about handling matters relating to the children themselves while arguments between siblings are rarely about what they seem to be. The issue is not he took my toy, rather it is he took my special place with mom or dad. The desired adjudication is to be declared the favored one. Thoughtful disagreement is not likely.
Disagreements between parents and children have to do with children “not listening,” meaning they don’t do what the parents want them to do. As children grow and assert their will, the issue becomes who is or will be boss. They disagree about bedtime, homework time, and various kinds of behavior. Children fight to have a voice. The arguments are very personal.
This doesn’t mean that arguments are harmful as long as they are not hurtful or abusive. Children can learn to live with conflict — something they will have to confront throughout life. Perhaps the real point is not thoughtful disagreement but rather an ability to listen. As in development generally, parents have a role to play. Children need to feel that they are heard, which doesn’t have to mean doing what they want. Children learn to listen themselves by first being heard.
You can hear a lot when you listen.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.