I wish I had this insight from Day 1 as a parent...luckily, it's never too late to start teaching this incredible lesson in your family.
The adults probably need to learn it too!
Last week, my husband and I attended a party at my daughter’s preschool. The kids had made fresh-squeezed lemonade and had been working on a song to sing for everyone. We were so excited about it!
Imagine our disappointment when, in the middle of all this adorable-ness, our three-year-old and her BFF decided to fight the whole time.
And my child’s style of "fighting?" Wailing. Sobbing. An emotional puddle on the floor.
Freddy was a frustrated ball of tears, unable to participate in any of the fun that was going on.
I said to her, "I know you’re really upset. Can you use your words?"
She buried her face and wailed I DON'T HAVE ANY WORDS!!!
This experience really stuck with me over the weekend.
Sure, fights among kids do happen! But it was obvious that my child was not even close to sticking up for herself.
In our house, we talk about the importance of using words. Years ago, my husband and I set an intention to talk to our baby about her feelings, to let her know that we were witnesses to her body language and her expressiveness, even before she could talk.
We also made a very firm parenting pact that we would never tell our child how to feel. That we would never respond to her tears or rage by saying "You're okay!" or "You're just tired. You need a nap."
But there’s been something missing from our teaching.
Something we never thought about before.
We never argue in front of her. In fact, we don't argue much at all.
Typically, if I disagree with something my husband does, my reaction is simply an internal eyeroll—yes, an emotional eyeroll that happens without any physical representation.
I grind my teeth together, and proceed as normal.
I'm annoyed, but I'm not saying anything. Sooner or later, my husband might raise an eyebrow at me and ask, "Are you okay?"
Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone? I feel stupid admitting it, but I know I'm not the only one whose knee-jerk reaction is to remain stone-cold silent when I see things not going my way.
If you grew up in a tense, “cold war” household—or a chaotic one with lots of emotional tornados going through it—it’s possible you have unconsciously adopted the same style:
You grin and bear it, feeling like it’s not safe or appropriate to argue.
Of course, you're intelligent and rational and you realize this isn't super healthy. But these are "survival behaviors" that you execute without even thinking, because you learned them as a very young person.
This is natural and you’re not alone! It's childish, but the sad fact is we don’t have great role models for arguing in a way that feels safe and respectful.
As a result, it’s difficult for us to ask for what we need or what we feel is right.
You might be carrying around some bitterness that’s really not because your partner or family member or friend is being inconsiderate, but actually because you don't know how to use your words when you’re displeased.
Toddlers don't bottle up their feelings and become bitter, they emote everywhere, which is actually really healthy! It’s great that my daughter is not storing that emotion in her body. BUT.
As she moves on from the stage of automatic outbursts, I don’t want to teach her to bottle up that emotion. I don’t want to teach her that arguing is not OK.
I want her to speak up for herself among her peers. I want her to clearly and firmly say what she feels is wrong—whether it’s a big deal, or a small thing.
...And she almost never sees me doing that. And she almost never sees her father doing that.
We agreed that HAS to change!
The only way for her to learn how to stick up for herself while respecting herself and others is if arguments are happening in our house.
A Plan For Teaching Healthy Disagreement
You and your partner can sit down and put your heads together about how to teach your child what respectful arguments look like.
I decided to begin by using the same phrase I taught my daughter when she was a toddler:
“I don’t like that."
This is a simple statement you can use to wade out into the murky waters of disagreement in front of your kids. It can also be your signal phrase to your partner that means "I am initiating a respectful disagreement in front of the kids right now."
Choose phrases that are sincere (not sarcastic). Choose phrases that take ownership over your own feelings (rather than placing blame).
Some other great phrases to practice:
- "That doesn't work for me."
- "Can you help me figure out..."
- "Stop. Let's talk about this."
- "I need you to know that..."
- "I'm not happy with how this turned out."
- "This is not cool with me."
These phrases are "feeling-statements," and they are neutral in the sense that you're not bossing your partner in front of the kids, and you're not making your partner take responsibility for your feelings (and you're certainly not name-calling or trying to make them look like a jerk!). You're just saying how you feel.
Practice the body language of displeasure.
Your child needs to learn this too:
- That it's appropriate to stand up and put your hands on your hips.
- That it's good to lift your chin and use a clear, firm voice.
...and it's up to you to model these behaviors!
It could be fun for you and your partner to sit down and come up with some action-items for how to model healthy disagreement in your house, with both words and body-language. It might feel a little theatrical, but what's the alternative...?
Do you want to teach your child to be passive-aggressive and sarcastic? To put up with stuff she doesn't like, and then feel bitter about it later, believing that her concerns aren't worth speaking out?
I want my child to know that it is safe and human to be displeased. It is only when we try to bottle up our feelings that they become unhealthy.
The world needs more people who are willing to own their feelings and stand up for what they believe is right.
What are some of the creative things you've done to teach this lesson in your family?
How do you feel about modeling healthy arguments in front of your kids?
Leave a comment below and help someone out!