From our home perch in New Jersey, my family would drive up and down the eastern seaboard for long weekends and summer vacations. No matter our destination, one thing was guaranteed: We'd get lost along the way. Before Google Maps, in-car navigation systems, the TomTom GPS, or MapQuest printouts, we relied on maps from AAA and my mother's almost-nonexistent sense of direction.
Between these handicaps and my father's road weary eyes, we'd find ourselves on an unintentional detour just as we were nearing our final stop. My parents' mutual frustration would lead to an argument, where my dad would exasperatedly ask which way to turn, and my mom would answer him with a raised voice that matched the strain in his. We had a 50/50 shot of her directions being correct, and my dad would ultimately take the map and get us there somehow.
As a kid, these arguments never bothered me. I didn't feel scared, unsafe, or confused. My parents rarely fought in front of us, and when they did, it was over mundane matters like this, things that we knew would work out in the end. That's probably why my brothers and I piled on to these stressful moments by asking our parents rapid fire questions about where we were going and handing my mother wrappers and other garbage from the back seat.
Once we finally made it to our hotel, we'd all perk up, the stress of the voyage behind us, not worth discussing again. If the subject did come up later, my parents usually did it with a laugh – the story properly placed on the scale of perspective.
It turns out, these types of tiffs are actually beneficial to have in front of kids, according to a 2014 article from Developmental Science. While a pattern of hostile and destructive arguments is never healthy for kids to witness, Psychologist E. Mark Cummings found that parents who manage disagreements well are actually modeling healthy conflict resolution for their kids.
This makes sense to me. From watching my parents argue, I learned that loving someone doesn't always mean agreeing with them and that the person you spend your life with will inevitably have quirks that get on your nerves. I saw that my parents were equal partners and treated each other as such. They fought respectfully – no name calling, no threats, no blanket accusations and no hollow appeasements for the sake of ending the discussion. They kept their sense of humor, and they saved really sensitive topics for when we kids were out of ear shot.
To this day, I couldn't tell you what serious marital stressors they've encountered over their 40-plus years of marriage. They expertly walked the line of demonstrating the realities of marriage without oversharing or overburdening their kids.
In fact, if you and your partner are capable of fighting fair in front of your children like my parents, it may be better to do so than save the discussion for later. Cummings calls children "emotional geiger counters" who can keenly sense the mood and feelings of their parents. He says, "When parents refuse to speak to each other or work together toward a resolution, it may be more harmful to kids' emotional development than open conflict."
Diana Garber, a psychotherapist in San Francisco, explains that if kids pick up on tension at home or know that their parents are fighting behind closed doors, they may internalize the stress they sense. They may "withdraw… Some children will try to fix the problem and often (try to) put their parents' needs before their own."
At minimum, if children know their parents are angry or hurt, but don't see them express this, they miss an opportunity to learn how to communicate about emotions effectively, a cornerstone of a healthy relationship. They may not believe it's appropriate to share their feelings at all.
It's certainly tricky business navigating the inevitable stressors of a long-term relationship with little eyes upon us, but it's important for their emotional development that we get it right. If you and your partner are at a loss for how to resolve conflicts effectively, then find a therapist who can help get you back on track.
If, on the spectrum of relationships, yours is a healthy one, go ahead and work out some problems in front of your kids. Garber reminds us that we don't need to find a perfect resolution to every disagreement, as long as our children see that we've repaired that particular "relationship rupture."
After technology outsourced my mother's role of navigator, my parents' quarrels in the car reduced significantly (although, in my mom's defense, they still sometimes make a wrong turn). Even if our problems don't have such a clear cut solution, we need not worry about arguing in front of our kids, as long as we show respect and discretion when we do it. We're actually helping them develop their own relationship GPS, and it turns out that this sense of direction is much more valuable in the long run.