The other day my wife and I had a huge fight over money. Apparently, I’m a tight-fisted miser who is obsessed with checking our joint account (online banking has a lot to answer for). My wife, on the other hand, is an out-of-control shop-a-holic intent on driving us into the nearest homeless shelter. Three of George Carlin’s seven dirty words were used, anatomically impossible head placements were suggested, and several alternatives to birth control were proposed – all in front of our eleven-year-old daughter.
An hour later, after I’d stormed off and come crawling back, the guilt started to set in. Had we psychologically damaged our daughter for life? After all, when it comes to arguing, isn’t the cardinal rule: not in front of the kids?
Whenever I think of parental blow-outs, I always think of my fifth birthday, when my parents had their famous “birthday cake” argument. My wannabe Martha Stewart mother had baked me a huge soccer-themed cake, complete with players, two goals, spectators, and even a scoreboard. It was spectacular.
What happened next, even after thirty-one years, is still clouded with controversy.
After my birthday party, about half of the cake was left. According to my mother, my dad was instructed take it to my Granny’s and share a few slices of it with her and my extended family, and then bring the rest of it back. My dad contends that he was told specifically to let them have the rest of the cake. The one undisputed detail is that my dad returned without the cake. To put it mildly, my mother got a little upset. Tempers were lost, followed by one of those epic full-on screaming matches that seemed less like an argument and more like a clash of civilizations. My dad spent a rather uncomfortable night on the sofa. My reaction to losing my birthday cake is not remembered.
My parents, on the whole, have always been a happy couple. I didn’t grow up in a house full of constant resentments and sniping. Plates were not broken on the kitchen floor. There were no court-imposed anger management classes. But on occasion, they liked to have a good old row.
Like everything in parenting, when it comes to fighting, you’re damned if you do and certainly damned if you don’t. My brother-in-law’s parents never argued in front of him while they were growing up. In fact, he has never seen them utter a cross word to each other in his entire life. As a result, rather than seeing squabbles as part of a healthy relationship, he saw them as a sign of doom. He broke up with several girlfriends during his twenties just because they had an argument.
I’m not suggesting you should pull up chairs so that your children can have front-row seats to your fights. Nor am I suggesting that all arguments are positive life experiences. A few years ago, a friend and her ex had an argument in front of their six-year-old son during which the ex threatened to punch her. Not a great male role model there.
What I am saying is that we all need to relax a little. We have become so anxious about the negative impacts our actions have on our kids that we have lost all sense of balance. Our children’s psyches are not delicate spider webs. They are actually much sturdier than we give them credit for. Though, like every adult, I question a number of Mom and Dad’s dubious parenting decisions (“Oh, he’ll grow out of it” isn’t a great strategy for dealing with dyslexia), I don’t think their arguing had a negative effect on me.Life is stressful, and, sometimes, we all need to release our inner Hulk. I was too busy playing with my Star Wars figures, and, as I got older, trying to summon the courage to talk to girls, to take much notice of them. And when it comes to arguing, you can’t always wait until the kids are asleep. That’s a recipe for simmering resentment.
Just as too much arguing is a sign of a bad relationship, so is too little. My wife and I are about average on the arguing bell curve. We both have our moments, and I think it’s good for our daughter to see all sides of a relationship. Sometimes we pick fights with each other just to clear the air. In many ways, a good fight is like a violent summer storm, and it’s a great way to relieve the tensions that build up in our daily lives. Life is stressful, and, sometimes, we all need to release our inner Hulk.
What did our daughter think of our blow out? Did we permanently psychologically damage her for life? Well, it’s probably too early to tell, but I don’t think she’s going to need long-term counselling. She’s seen us argue before and she knew that we weren’t going to get divorced or separate. She was, dare I say it, happy – more money for the swear box! At the end, my wife and I both apologized to each other, and I think that’s the best lesson. No matter what you say in the heat of the moment, afterwards there is always a “sorry,” and that’s definitely good for our children to witness.