Kids hate it when parents fight. We are their world, and when we fight, their world feels scary. Kids who witness angry, scorched-earth battles between their parents are at a higher risk of aggression and delinquency, not to mention anxiety and depression.
But not all fighting is created equal, and some kinds of disagreement might actually help kids become better thinkers.
Marital conflict research—it’s a thing—considers two types of conflict: constructive and destructive. Not surprisingly, it favors the former and discourages the latter. Researchers say it’s not the amount or intensity of fighting that matters, but how parents fight. Kids need to feel protected—it’s called “emotional security theory”—so if the fighting makes them feel less safe, it’s bad. But if conflict doesn’t threaten their emotional safety, it might be good.
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at Wharton and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, argues that the right kind of fighting helps kids think independently, and allows for creativity. It helps to avoid groupthink and the all-too-common approach of shutting down opposing voices, rather than debating them. By observing constructive conflict, kids can build the muscles that allow them to embrace tolerance and acknowledge different views without resorting to trolling, name-calling, or censorship when they become adults.
“Most parents hide their conflicts,” Grant writes in the New York Times:
“They want to present a united front, and they don’t want kids to worry. But when parents disagree with each other, kids learn to think for themselves. They discover that no authority has a monopoly on truth. They become more tolerant of ambiguity. Rather than conforming to others’ opinions, they come to rely on their own independent judgment.”
Grant cites a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Rochester and Notre Dame that studied 235 families with children aged five to seven over three years. They asked parents to report on how they engaged in conflict (they also videotaped couples trying to resolve a sticky subject, and then rated how destructive or constructive they were). The kids whose parents argued constructively, and who felt emotionally safe, showed greater empathy and concern for others three years later. They also ranked higher on so-called pro-social behaviors, like being friendly and helpful in class.
“For the first time… evidence was found for the impact of constructive marital conflict in increasing positive aspects of children’s functioning, rather than simply reducing negative responses or risk for adjustment problems,” the study said.
It’s seems obvious that if we want to raise kids who are not only happy and driven but also thoughtful and civically engaged, we need to teach them how to have constructive disagreements with others. Per usual, actions speak louder than words. For his part, Grant offers four tips on how to model effective arguing. He says that parents need to:
- Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict
- Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong
- Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective
- Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them
Upon reading these recommendations, the initial glow that came from the feeling that fighting was good for my kids started to recede. I am pretty good at the first and last, but not so good on the middle two.
I told Grant that when my husband and I were debating a subject, our kids often perceived it to be arguing. He suggested we ask them what a healthy disagreement look likes. “Are there things they’d like to see you say/do to signal that you’re not fighting?” he offered up, adding, “If they tell you to do something sappy like holding hands during debates, don’t blame me.”