I'm divorced and at the top of divorce do and don't lists is: "don't fight in front of the kids." I agree and disagree.
I didn't grow up in a loud house. Arguments between my parents were quiet and tense. Resolution was when one upset parent left the room. This wasn't a misstep by my parents, it's how it was for their generation. My mom wasn't bombarded by television segments on relationships, "helpful" posts from friends and dozens of daily online parenting articles telling her contradictorily what to do and what not to do. Lucky her.
Similarly and perhaps not surprisingly my ex and I were not a loud, have it out in the house kind of couple. Blow ups weren't often and always far from the kids. Our disagreements were quiet and insidious. Not healthy or desired, but for very young children, a lot less noticeable than a screaming match. Now, our more often blow ups are left to CAP filled emails and our therapist's office.
Last weekend my 12 year old was literally in the middle of an argument between his dad and me. His neck craned and eyes ping-ponged back and forth taking it all in. This was a level 4, maybe 5 fight on the Richter scale. I had said "no," and his dad was not happy about it. Different words for "no" and "why" were used for a few minutes. It was as far into fighting in front of the kids as we've ever gotten. Resolved not to acquiesce yet on the verge of caving, our thesauruses depleted and our heated discussion thankfully ended.
If I follow the not fighting in front of the kids commandment, then when I decide to stand firm on "no," it should not have been with my kid standing between us. I had traded compliance for guilt. I spent a few hours debating that decision and commandment until my mind did a spectacular, politician worthy flip-flop. I shouldn't feel guilty about Ben seeing us fight. It's healthy and he needs more, not less of it.
By shielding my son from the awkward and upsetting I have shielded him from the constructive and helpful. Disagreements are a part of life. What matters is how you fight and how you resolve it. Instead of "don't fight in front of the kids" how about "model fair, respectful fighting with a clear resolution." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Parenting today ranges from thoughtful to helicopter. I take care in my interactions with my ex (at times totally blowing it) and I give great thought to my parenting, especially since my divorce. But in great thought one thought escaped me. Focused on care and thought I had failed to teach my son a valuable lesson.
Kids need to see adults disagree, negotiate, compromise and move on. A fight doesn't end a relationship, a fight is nothing to fear. By not having conflict resolution modeled, I really didn't know how to argue effectively and kindly. It wasn't until my 30's that I started to take ownership of my role in disagreements. I have learned that I need to pinpoint what my desired resolution is for each situation and have worked on the ever challenging task of arguing kindly and effectively.
My present relationship is offering my kids what my marriage didn't. They are bearing witness to a mature, considerate, grown up relationship. They see how to treat someone you love and they are right there when my boyfriend and I disagree. Granted it's usually about how much ice cream is OK at 9:00 p.m., Doritos before dinner and talking when the TV is on. All minor infractions of daily life but infractions that are breeding grounds for larger battles. They see us whip out our computers and work out our calendars in detail, which in itself is a tense negotiation. They have seen us each disappoint the other and come out better on the other side. It's a start.
I don't advocate nasty, foul language fueled battles with your children as the audience. I don't plan to have major knockdowns with my ex in front of our kids and will still take care with my words and keep the nasty at bay. But, I might not always tread so lightly. Seeing their parents break some eggshells and get through it is something that may feel uncomfortable and make them wiggle, but it's a dance worth learning while they're young.