MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on October 21st, 2013, 0 Comments

Modern Family: Season 5, Episode 5, The Late Show

The Couples Fight In Front of Their Kids

The Framework
On tonight’s episode Jay pulls some strings to get reservations for an adults’ family-night out at a trendy, new restaurant. With all three couples trying to get there on time, someone in each household is running late – adding to the ever-present potential for bickering between the spouses.

Claire and Phil get in a quarrel about letting Luke stay home alone.
Claire: I think Luke is afraid to be left in the house alone, and he’s just pretending to be brave for you.
Phil: Honey, he’s 14! We left Alex alone when she was 10.
Claire: We didn’t leave her; we forgot her.
Phil: She was fine – physically… Plus she’s still friends with that sweet 911 operator.

Per usual, Gloria is taking forever to get ready.
Jay: Gloria is always late. Then I get mad and tell her to hurry. We yell. And it just takes longer. So [this time] I promised myself no matter how late, just to take some deep breaths and stay calm. That’s the only thing I learned in Lamaze class because we were always late.
And later, there’s this.
Jay (looking at his watch): Manny, see why your mother is taking so long. And don’t tell her I sent you.
Manny (yelling upstairs): Mom, hurry!
Jay: Don’t yell! I could have yelled!
Manny: Then why didn’t you?
Jay: Because I didn’t want to yell. I want you to go!
Manny: Why can’t you go?!
Jay: Why can’t you do what I ask?!! I’m trying to do something new here.

Meanwhile, Mitch and Cam are also busy doing battle.
Mitch (calling to Cam from the living room): How come it takes me five minutes to get ready, and you take forever?
Cam: Oh, please! I could get ready in five minutes too if I dressed like you (just before coming into the living room and discovering that they’re dressed alike).
Mitch: All right, one of us has to change. We look like twin toddlers at church. … I hate to play this card, but I was dressed first.
Cam: Oh, that’s silly! Lily, it’s time to play “Who Wore It Best?”
Lily: Nope. I’m not doing this again. I can’t.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
We all know that it can be damaging for children to witness their parents’ fighting if it spirals into an ugly screaming match or worse. But what about the arguing of the intensity we saw tonight? Almost all kids see this kind of bickering. But is it really okay?

Child psychologists have begun looking for answers. And a growing number of studies provide some guidance on what matters when we fight with our spouse when our kids are around.

We’ve know for years that kids are like Geiger counters – that their sense of wellbeing fluctuates with how well their parents are getting along. A recent study actually showed that kids’ emotional health and security are more affected by their parents’ relationship than by their own direct relationship with their parents.

In another study, parents were asked to make note of every argument – no matter how small. It turned out that the typical married couple was having around eight disputes a day, according to the moms. (Dads said it was slightly less.) The couples said that they expressed anger towards each other two to three times as often as they showed affection to one another. And, though, the parents said they often try to shield their kids from their arguing, kids were still witness to it 45% of the time.

What’s a Mom to Do

So should we try to avoid ever arguing with our spouse in front of our kids? The answer to that is complicated. But child psychologists who study this issue tend to say no. Most agree that it’s okay for our kids to witness our arguments as long as we can manage to argue in a healthy way. Below are some tips to help us keep it that way:

Keep it respectful and constructive. For starters, this means avoiding insults, name-calling, or piling on by dredging up issues from the past. And it should never even come close to anything physical. (This includes exploding pop bottles, Mitch.)
Stay in control. Don’t let things get too heated. If we or our spouse is starting to yell or swear, we need to put the fight on hold and give ourselves some cooling off time.
Avoid the silent treatment. Witnessing this can be worse for our kids than arguing. Because it tends to make kids think things are worse than they are.
Keep an eye on the kids. Look for signs that they are getting upset or worried. This includes crying, obviously. But it also includes freezing up, trying to intervene, or behaving in ways that draw attention away from the fight – like, for example, Luke falling off a teetering bar stool in a storm of Cheetos. (Granted, this may have been more about physics than psyche.)
Never draw the kids into the fight. (Listen up, Jay. It’s not okay to send Manny to do your dirty work.) And we should never encourage our kids to take sides (Cam, this means no more playing “Who Wore It Best?” You’re right, Lily, you can’t do this again.)
Be a united front. Some topics should always be out of our kids’ earshot. This includes disagreements about parenting decisions. (Claire and Phil, I’m talking to you now.) Our kids depend on our sturdy presence. So it’s best to settle parenting disputes out of the kids’ earshot and come up with and present a unified front. This is especially important for teens who have a knack for noticing and using our parenting disputes to their advantage.
Don’t take it upstairs. When we pause mid-battle to take it upstairs – to spare our kids – we actually might be making things worse. Especially, if we don’t show them or tell them that we’ve worked it out. Our kids need to know that we’ve reached some kind of resolution.

Jay: Gloria!
Gloria: What?!
Jay: I think the new earrings are really going to tie your new outfit together.
Gloria (blowing Jay a kiss): You’re so sweet!
Manny (to Jay): Wow! That was very mature of you.
Jay: Yeah – well, I’m a lot older now then when she started getting dressed.

Many experts say that if we can keep it calm and under control it can actually be helpful for our kids to see us argue with our spouse. After all, our kids are going to have disagreements with their peers and eventually their co-workers. Seeing us fight fairly and constructively and come to a resolution gives our kids a model for compromising and settling differences. Kids whose parents don’t argue in front of them miss out on this lesson in conflict resolution

What our kids see happening between us and our spouses at the end of our fights is crucial though. This is true even when our arguing is far away from the kids. Even if they’ve not heard or seen anything, they’re still aware of it. Normal chatter and genuine friendly, affectionate talk alleviates anxiety in our kids. (Good job, Jay!)

But even more crucial is what goes on when we’re not arguing. The proportion of affection to fighting words our kids witness matters. And this is something that the parents in all three Modern Family households might want to think about.

Your Parenting Experiences
Do you and your spouse sometimes argue in front of your kids? If so, how do your kids tend to respond?

Sources: Nurture Shock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman; The Family that Fights Together by Andrea Peterson

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