Parenting: How to Fight with a Child

kidsfightingThe most basic principle of conflict resolution, that both parties in the conflict have to be treated as equals, flies out the window when that conflict is with a child or between children.

Equality is a tricky area in parenting. Yes, this child is in every way your equal in humanity and way ahead of you in potential. He or she is undeniably not your equal in size, power, or – for a while – intelligence and experience. If we allow a child equal power in a conflict what we get is a spoiled, obnoxious child who will put his or her own future in jeopardy by making bad decisions.

Equality is likewise tricky between two children, because we cannot count on children not to take advantage of their greater size, intelligence, or experience. A referee is needed.

When we are in conflict with our children, or they are in conflict with each other, we must treat them with respect as the complete human beings they are, while we decisively withhold the power they are grasping for.

The standard steps to conflict resolution apply, but they must be adjusted for the relative sizes of the combatants.

First, listen. It is all too easy to dismiss a child. You are the parent, you know what they are going to say, and you know what your decision is going to be, so why waste the time, right?

How did that attitude make you feel the last time you were on the receiving end of it?

Take a moment to listen to their side, even if it is ridiculous, because just knowing they are being listened to is a win for a child. This is much easier to do when your 4 year old is explaining to you why she thinks she should have ice cream for lunch, than it is when your 13 year old is explaining why it is not a problem that you caught him smoking. Give them the time to speak, no matter how tempting it is to cut them off.

Actually focus on them and pay attention to what they are saying. Don’t let your mind wander into thinking about what you will say next, or the errands you have to run.  The prize you get for listening is a better understanding of your progeny; as a bonus, they then have to listen to you, to be fair. Another win!

Sometimes it helps to set a timer prominently between you and give each person a minute to speak without interruption.

After one contender has their moment to speak, their opponent should repeat back what they heard. Sometimes what we mean to say is not what comes out of our mouths, and sometimes what we hear is not what was actually said.

Communicate, and insist that they communicate. Don’t fling insults and accusations. Don’t bring up past history. Don’t yell, because yelling looses it’s power quickly. Don’t threaten with ultimatums – they backfire. Never denigrate your child and never label them: labels stick, and children sometimes try to live up to them.  Sit down at their level, look them in the eye, speak at normal volume, and stick to the subject.

Don’t make assumptions, or jump to conclusions. Slow down and give yourself the time to fully understand, or mistakes will be made.

Summarize. After everyone has had a chance to make their points, sum them up. Name the problem, list the arguments on each side.

Start with areas of agreement. In every discussion there are points of agreement. Start with those points, and work from there. We agree that ice cream is delicious, and it does have calcium in it for your bones, but…

In the end, you are the parent and must make the decision that you feel is best. Listening to your children along the way does no harm, strengthens relationships, will make them feel valued, and will nourish their self esteem. Understanding their thought processes and point of view may also help prevent later conflicts. Avoid the pitfalls – jumping to conclusions, towering over your child, name calling – and you will not have damage to repair later.

The experience of being treated fairly and with respect will carry forward and encourage your children to demand respect as they become adults. And learning how to argue without destroying a relationship? Priceless.

Domesticated Momster

Parenting: How to Fight Like a Grownup

CinemaUsher-01Children thrive in a home where they feel secure: security that is based in large part on their parents being sane and reliable. It can be terrifying when parents argue. If Mom or Dad act crazy when they fight their daughter, watching from around the corner, or son, lying in bed with a pillow over his head, will believe their world is falling apart.

As a result, an important part of parenting is learning how to discuss and resolve differences of opinion without devolving into screaming insults and accusations.

The goal of any parental conflict is to reach a compromise with which both parties will feel that they have won something, and both parties feel that they have given up something to the deal. If one party wins everything the compromise will not hold, because the other will have nothing to loose and will either keep fighting or just give up. We are looking for a win-win.

Parents are individuals first, with unique histories and priorities. There are bound to be disagreements over the decades it takes to raise a child. (Last week’s blog outlined common areas of disagreement; after this is how to fight with a child.) Since these disagreements happen between two people, the personalities of those people will impact the process. A little self examination is in order before we move on to how to fight like a grown-up.

There are three common personality styles that can negatively affect – umm- discussions:

  • The avoider: this person will not bring up the problem, will change the subject when they can, try to make jokes, deny that there is a problem… The problem will not get solved unless they can be brought to ground. (My husband is nodding and pointing at me.)
  • The nice guy: this person will give until they can’t give any more and then they explode. They will yield all points and agree to whatever their partner wants. Said partner will be completely blindsided when the divorce papers come.
  • The competitor: this is the person who will argue for points they don’t even care about, because they just want to win. Sometimes they can go over the line and and get nasty, flinging insults and accusations.

Parenting is too important to allow personality style to impact decisions. Figure out how you and your partner argue, and realize that your child is important enough to force yourself out of your comfort zone and let go of whatever habits you have indulged in until now. Face whatever the issue is, stand up for what you think is right, but don’t steamroll over your partner. Discuss the issue with the goal of compromise and cooperation.

People smarter than me have studied how to resolve conflicts in politics and business. The same principles work for relationships and parenting. The process can be divided into steps:

  • Listen. This means not interrupting until your partner in life, that person whom you love most in the world, has made his or her point. So hush! If you have trouble staying quiet, place a timer prominently between you and give each person a few uninterrupted minutes. Listening also means hearing and trying to understand what their words actually meant. This is difficult to do when all you are thinking about is your own point of view and what you are going to say next. You need to know how your partner in life sees the problem in order to fix it.  Sometimes it helps to repeat back what you heard, because what one person says is not always what the other person hears. “I’m frustrated and angry because we can’t pay our bills” can sound like “I want out of this marriage” if you are not careful.
  • Communicate. Talk about the actual issue. We want the best education for our child, but we can’t agree  on priorities. Don’t detour over to how you feel, other issues, or past history. Don’t try to assign blame. We never should have moved, or You should have taken that other job, won’t help.
  • Summarize. After you’ve both had a chance to make your point, sum it up. Name the problem, list the points on each side. Write it down if it helps.
  • Start with agreement. In every discussion there are points of agreement. Start with those points, and work from there. We both value education, but we know we cannot afford the private school we love… You want to work more so we can come up with the money, I want you home more and think we can teach them by reading, traveling, going to the library.
  • Don’t make assumptions, or jump to conclusions. Slow down, give yourselves the time to fully understand. Don’t let emotions and the thrill of drama get the better of you.
  • Realize that you must come to an agreement, there is no other option. We can work a little more to pay for math camp during the summer, and carve out extra time to hit libraries and museums.

Both sides must give a little and both sides must win a little, because you are in this together. One partner cannot overpower the other, or the partnership will not last, and your children need your partnership to last more than they need whatever you are arguing about.

In a conflict between parents either both parents win or both, in the end, loose.

Domesticated Momster

Conflict Resolution in Parenting: Prevention

CinemaUsher-01A good friend of mine, not realizing how complex a subject it was, and how much work it would be, asked me to write a blog about conflict resolution.

He may no longer be on my good list (coal for Christmas, you!), but for the next few weeks I will be blogging about conflict resolution because he got me thinking. This week is for the groundwork: exploring the issues that are at the root of many conflicts between parents. Next week will be about the most (and least) effective ways to fix those conflicts; after that we can expand into parent-child conflicts and those between children.

The first, most important, and absolutely non-negotiable concrete foundation of conflict resolution between parents is that parents are equal partners, and have to respect each other as such. You chose to have a child together. It is the privilege and responsibility of both to parent. It does not matter if you are married, partners, or single, or if one parent is taller, stronger, richer, smarter, more talented…. That child belongs to both of you and needs both of you. I once saw a child in the post office with a parent on either side holding onto an arm and pulling. Don’t do that. Your child is not a rope in a tug of war.

Conflicts can only be resolved by compromise. If one side wholly wins, the other has no choice but to keep fighting. Both sides have to give a little; both have to feel that they have won something. None of us are always right; we can afford to be flexible. In the end it is far more important that your children see that their parents respect each other, can listen to each other and discuss problems, and are able to compromise, than whether or not their bedtime can be changed, or they can go to a party.

If parents cannot respect each other as equals, that is the lesson their child will absorb, and someday he or she might accept something less than respect from their partner.

The structure we build on that foundation is agreement on common goals. It seems, going into parenting, that we should all have the same obvious goals. We want our child alive, healthy, happy, self-confident… Obvious, yes? It’s amazing how much variation there is within these bounds. Ideally, parents discuss and agree on goals for their children before they actually have any. In reality, many parents discuss religion and not much else.

So, ten things to talk about with your partner before things go ka-BOOM:

  1. Where you will live: Having a child is a lifetime commitment, so this means 20 years of where you will live, not just right now. Talk about location, type of home, whether you want to be near family, if you will move for a better job…  whatever is important to you. Things change, and it is nice to know where your partner stands on the subject ahead of time.
  2. Finance: Children need security to feel safe enough to explore and grow. Financial worries can plant their lives on shifting sands. Sit down together and figure out how much money you make, what you will spend it on, and how you will save for an emergency and the future. Make a budget. Your child does not want to loose a parent over the electric bill.
  3. Diet: You want them to be healthy, right? Not to have diabetes at 12, back pain at 15, and heart disease at 40? That means agreeing on what to feed them, and on being a good example yourself. It also includes not using food for emotional support or rewards. And don’t get me started on using food so that your child will like you better than the other parent.
  4. Routines and schedules: How obsessive are you going to be about homework, meal times, and bedtime routines? Routines can be incredibly helpful: kids don’t argue over something (like bedtime) that is a habit. On the other hand, routines can become rigid and squash all random opportunities and creativity. Where do  you put that balance? Routines work only if both parents are in agreement on them, so talk.
  5. Sleeping arrangements: I have seen more than a few marriages end in an ugly divorce over this one. There is really no moral right or wrong on it, but you must both agree. Just don’t co-sleep with a baby under 6 months. I’ve lost two small patients that way, and never want to lose another. Just don’t.
  6. Education: How important is school? (Guess which side I took on this one) Are some subjects more important than others? Do actual grades and the particular school matter, or is it learning and inspiration that is important? How about learning technical skills versus book learning? How about “useful” skills versus not so obviously useful? Did I mention that I also have an a degree in anthropology? I am married to an engineer. We have discussions.
  7. Careers: Which career choices are acceptable, and which are not? You might want to write these down and then switch lists – surprise! When I was a child, my options were nurse, teacher, or housewife. My mother had crossed “nun” off the list and not replaced it with anything. I was a big surprise.
  8. Athletics: How important are sports? Life ending? Or just done to be well rounded and get exercise? Any particular sport in mind?
  9. Criminal behavior: This is a biggie. Children start out as small barbarians, travel through self-involved, and wander into insecure before they become adults. They will try out hitting, biting, lying and stealing along the way. How will you react? What will you do to discourage this behavior?
  10. Privacy: Children have no legal right to privacy. They have what you give them, and they deserve your protection from their own … lack of insight, so their privacy cannot be absolute. Where is that line? How much do you trust before you verify?

So, I have managed to write a blog on conflict resolution without ever discussing how to resolve a conflict. Hmm. We will do that next week. First and foremost: respect your partner and set common goals. Once you have that foundation and framework, everything else falls into place more easily. With a little nudge. Or two.

Build that foundation. If parents endlessly argue and fight, marriages self destruct; if parents cannot treat each other with respect and decide on common goals, children self destruct.

Have that conversation before you need it.