Parenting: How to argue in front of your child

November 17, 2010

I recently read a story on this topic in a local magazine. One man, estranged from his wife after cheating on her, lamented that he wished he had more access to social research. If only I had known it would get better when my daughter got to three, he said.

So these early years can be a handful, and there's often no way around that. Which leads to the next parental dilemma: how do you fight when there are kids involved? Do you sit there in angry silence until the little ones are in bed? Pop off in front of them? Is it worse to fight in front of them, or for them to be in their beds, hearing pitched sounds coming through the walls?

Obviously, children should never witness violence between their parents. As for what to say and how loudly, that is a decision every couple has to make on their own. But recently I talked to John Medina, a brain researcher who recently put out a new book, "Brain Rules for Baby," and he added an interesting coda to this debate.

A main tenant of Medina's book is that the happiest and most successful children are empathetic. He discusses a number of ways parents can make that a goal. Turns out, even your arguments can help. Medina notes that people often start or conduct an argument in front of their kids. Kids hear your yelling, see the angry look on your face, or notice your tense body, even if they are too young to actually understand what you are saying.

"Infants younger than 6 months can usually detect when something is wrong. They can experience physiological changes - such as increase in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones - just like adults," writes Medina. "Some researchers claim they can assess the amount of fighting in a marriage simply by taking a 24-hour urine sample of the baby."

But rare is the couple who won't have some obvious dust-ups in the home. And that's okay, says Medina. "Fortunately, research shows that amount of fighting couples do in front of their children is less damaging than the lack of reconciliation the kids observe. Many couples will fight in front of their children, but reconcile in private," he says. "This skews a child's perceptions, even at early ages, for the child always see the wounding, but never the bandaging. Parents who practice bandaging each other deliberately - and explicitly - after a fight allow their children to model how to fight fair and how to make up."

So the next time you have cross words with your spouse in front of baby, don't just leave the make up for later. Try to say an "I'm sorry", and accept one, in front of the child. Like we make our kids do on the playground, hug it out a little. The benefits extend not only to the person on baby duty with you, but the little one at the center of your world.

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