Each year as Christmas approaches, my married friends begin to gently sob into their flat whites about how much work there is to do and how they are the ones doing *everything* yet again, and how they’re not looking forward to the in-laws coming and/or going to the in-laws and how their partners never have to think about buying any gifts or doing any of the hard work, and they always get rubbish presents and so on and so forth.
It’s one of the few times i get to feel genuinely smug about being a single parent, because I know i don’t have to have any of those tedious arguments with my spouse over dinner every evening in December. No disputes about whose parents are worst, and whether Santa gives the presents in the stocking or under the tree. I get to do it all my own way and there is no-one to be locked in mortal combat with (apart from myself.)
Actually, if I’m honest, what really happens as a single parent is that you still continue to fervently disagree with your ex on pretty much everything ever, but instead of doing it at the dinner table in front of the children, you do it via text message in the supermarket car park, or on the doorstep so they can’t hear you.
I’ve always thought this was a good thing. The idea that by concealing our sniping i am protecting my children from our adult toxic waste, has been one of the few ways i’ve ben able to console myself that splitting up wasn’t a complete parenting fail.
So it was really annoying to read recently that some boffins in America have decided it’s actually good for kids to grow up listening to their parents slog it out.
The piece in the New York Times by Adam Grant, a big shot American professor of psychology and author of a book called: Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World asserts that modern parents are so desperate to create ‘stable’ homes that they don’t argue enough in front of their kids. As a result children don’t learn the art of what he calls ‘getting hot without getting mad.’
Modern children, says Grant, are discouraged from squabbling with their siblings, while us parents have our own arguments behind close doors – or if you are me, on text in the car park-tactics which actually deprive kids of learning vital skills for adulthood.
So now you’re telling me all the fighting was good for the children?
Actually, what he says is that it’s good for raising creative children. Young people who know how to challenge and provoke (without completely losing the plot – v important point), tend to grow into the kind of adults who change the world. Or at least do something creative with it, says Grant.
“When adults in their early 30’s were asked to write imaginative stories, the most creative ones came from those whose parents had the most conflict a quarter-century earlier. Their parents had clashing views on how to raise children. They had different values and attitudes interests. And when highly creative architects and scientists were compared with their technically skilled but less original peers, the innovators often had more friction in their families. As the psychologist Robert Albert put it, “the creative person-to-be comes from a family that is anything but harmonious, one with a wobble. And if kids don’t learn to wobble, they never learn to walk; they end up standing still.”
So, basically, if you don’t show your kids what it looks like when you lose your shit, they’re going to grow up into dullards? Man, this parenting business is complicated.
It makes sense when you think about it. The Mediterraneans have surely known this for millennia (along with how to smoke 40 a day and not die.) In any French, Spanish or Italian home, a healthy arguement is considered de rigeur.
Could this be why the region has produced so many of the world’s most important artists and creative thinkers? Were Picasso’s parents at each other’s throats from dusk til dawn?
But before you go downstairs and unleash hell at everyone, bear in mind that it’s important to distinguish between the kind of healthy tension that encourages debate, and out-of-control fighting. Grant says fisticuffs, swearing, throwing things and generally being a banshee is not ever going to help. The skill is to get hot without getting mad, have a good argument but don’t ever get personal or nasty.
Other tips for non-contact, healthy family bust-ups include:
- Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict (‘daddy and i are having a debate about whether he is a lazy pig!’)
- Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong (but what if, like me, you are never wrong?)
- Make the most respectful interperetation of the other person’s perspective (ha ha ha)
- Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them (ummmm?)
Clearly, Grant has never been a woman. Or been married to a man. But hey – he’s only trying to help i guess. And whether or not we can get fully behind his ideas, the simple fact that someone, somewhere is saying it’s actually healthy for parents to have disputes, gives us all one less thing to worry about in December. And that, we can all agree, is a good thing.