Seven-year-old Amanda pensively chews on a lock of her hair, absorbed by her parents' rising voices. Meanwhile, her 5-year-old brother stares deeply into his bowl, using his spoon to whip the cornflakes into a mushy blur.
"You can't just toast her another waffle when she doesn't like the first one you made! You have to be firm, or she'll walk all over you!"
"But the pediatrician said her weight is on the low side. We're supposed to get her to eat. If you really cared about this you wouldn't criticize me, you'd help me!"
"The point is that you just can't set limits! You're like a jellyfish. It's no wonder she's so picky and skinny. I had to eat whatever I was served when I was a kid, and she can too."
"I grew up with parents like you, and I'm not going to bully my kids the way they did. I care about our kids' feelings, even if you don't. So get out of my way and let me finish giving them breakfast!"
No two parents think exactly alike, and arguments are bound to happen. Both parents in the story above love their children and want to do what's right for them. Yet, their honest disagreements are tarnished by contempt, personal attacks and an inability to hear each other. Perhaps this is how their parents argued when they were children. Even if we don't want to, we often end up repeating the mistakes we learned from our families when we were growing up.
What do you imagine Amanda and her little brother will learn from their parents' argument today? Will they learn how people who love each other can have heated disagreements that lead to hurt and anger? Or, will they learn that disagreements can be passionate and intense, but still be handled with mutual respect and a sincere desire to work together to solve family problems?
Parents who choose to change their most bitter arguments into productive discussions often make a conscious decision to do this for their children, not just themselves. These changes can have real and lasting benefits for everyone in the family, as well as for the relationship between the parents.
Here are some suggestions for how to have healthy disagreements between you and your partner:
Pick a better time to talk. Disagreements usually become more intense when they are dealt with under pressure. Few things get worse, and many things get better, when you postpone the conversation to a more relaxed and calm time.
"Look, this isn't the time to have this conversation. We're feeling rushed because we need to finish breakfast and get ready for the day. I can talk about this later tonight or we can make time to talk about it this weekend-you choose."
Use "I-statements" to express your thoughts and ideas. "You-statements" about what you think the other person is doing wrong will invariably sound accusatory and can put your partner on the defensive.
"I think it's a bad idea to give Amanda too many choices about what she can eat. We're teaching her that she can make endless demands that way."
"Well, I think the important thing is she needs to eat something. The first waffle was burnt on the corner and she is very sensitive to the way things taste. I don't think making her eat a burnt waffle is going to teach her anything, either."
Point the finger at the problem, not the person. Then explore possible solutions to the problem.
"So the problem, as I see it, is 'not giving the kids too many choices, so that they don't become too picky and hard to please.' Is that something you can agree with?"
"I think you're right. Giving the kids too many choices isn't good. Maybe we can offer two or three choices about what to have for breakfast, and no more than that."
Ask your partner first if he wants help dealing with a child's misbehavior.
"Amanda, I'm telling you again, you have to sit up in your chair! Your hair keeps getting in the syrup."
"Do you need any help? Do you want me to say something to her?"
"No, I've got it, thanks."
Let your children see that you respect each other and back each other up.
"What if Amanda doesn't like the choices I give her? What if she goes to you with her 'puppy dog eyes' and says she's hungry? Will you go offer her more choices?"
"No! That's not right. It'll be hard, but I'll stay out of it. I'll back you up, and I want you to back me up, too."
Every family disagreement is a learning experience for children and for parents as well. Even parents' disagreements have useful lessons to teach, if we handle them well.
Take Away Points
Choose calmer, less pressured times to talk about your disagreements. Discussions often escalate into arguments in the heat of the moment.
Use "I-statements" to share your point of view, not "You-statements" that often sound like personal attacks.
Point the finger at the problem and focus on solutions to that problem.
Ask your partner first before jumping into the situation between your partner and the child.
Back each other up in dealing with your children. If you have questions or complaints about how your partner handled the situation, have that conversation later.
Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). PEPparent.org