Usually my husband and I split up the weekday school drop-offs, but recently we took our daughter to school together. Sadly on this particular morning, we were both a little stressed about work and the busyness that is just part of raising two kids. Because both of our fuses were short that day, we started to bicker. And though my husband and I sometimes bicker, we rarely have a big fight. But on this day, it just happened. Our bickering turned to fighting with him raising his voice and saying, “Get out of the car.”
From the back of the car our daughter raised her little voice and said, “Does Mommy have to get out of the car?” And then she started to cry, worried that I’d be left to fend for myself, not realizing we were a block from home and that my husband was just mad and had no intention of really making me get out of the car.
“Sweetie,” I said trying to comfort her. “Sometimes grown-ups get mad at each other, but it’s nothing to worry about. I’m not getting out of the car and Daddy and I still love each other.” My husband told her everything was fine and that we were both just in bad moods. And we left it at that.
My husband and I forgot about the fight, but our daughter did not. When I walked into her classroom to pick her up that afternoon, her teacher took me aside and said, “Just wanted to give you a head’s up that Margaux told the whole class there was a big fight. She said she was worried you were getting kicked out of the car.” I felt horrified as I heard how my little 4-year-old had recounted our fight verbatim to her entire class. “She seemed really upset,” her teacher said.
I thanked her teacher for letting me know and walked my daughter to the car. But, I couldn’t get the conversation out of my head and I felt totally embarrassed. My daughter’s reaction to our fight taught my husband and me a lot about the impact our words to each other have on our kids. Here’s what we learned.
1. It’s incredibly stressful for children to see their parents fight. We think of ourselves as a couple who rarely fights, but that day I wondered if our kids would say the same thing. To a kid, Mom and Dad are comfort and offer a safe home base. But that day, my husband and I totally failed our daughter and we stressed her out. I think it’s good for kids to see that mom and dad have bad moods just like kids, but they shouldn’t feel anxiety in the process.
2. You might get over it quickly, but your kid won’t. Sure, I was totally pissed that my husband told me to get out of the car and he was fuming when he thought I was criticizing him. Deep down, however, we knew the fight was all about our bad mornings and nothing about our relationship. Still, kids think a big fight between their parents is the end of the world. And to them, it is. Boy did I learn that big time!
3. Even if the kids seem like they’re not listening, they are. Because it takes me what feels like 4,000 times to get my kids to listen to directions, I assume they’re totally tuned out when I’m not talking to them. I learned that day that nothing could be further from the truth. Kids are listening to their parents, even if they ignore us when we say it’s time to turn off the TV.
4. Just like adults need to talk to friends about what’s on their minds, so do kids. It’s bad enough that we fought in front our daughter and even worse that we used unkind worse and sentiments in the process, but it’s completely horrifying to know that our kid told the entire class! Makes sense, though. When something happens that I’m worried about, I immediately call a friend. My daughter did, too. Sadly her friends are all 4-year-olds who probably went home and told their parents, “Guess what happened to Margaux?” Ugh.
5. My husband and I probably fight more often than we think. We love each other a lot, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get on each other’s nerves and bicker. I realized my kids see that bickering much differently than we do. And though a fight that ends with my husband telling me to get out of the car is rare, the little spats probably aren’t.
6. There are some benefits to our kids seeing that even grown-ups have bad days. While I never want my kid to witness us having a huge fight again, I know she probably will. But when that happens, my daughter is getting to see firsthand that even adults have bad days, say unkind things they wish they hadn’t, and let stress get the best of them. So when she has a fight with a friend, she’ll remember that friends and family are forgiving. Everybody makes mistakes, even mom and dad.
7. The next time I’m feeling stressed, I’m going to watch what I say and do. My husband and I weren’t even mad at each other that morning in the car, we were just stressed about things totally unrelated to one another. There’s nothing so stressful that it’s worth being unkind to one another over, nor is it worth stressing out our kids. So if I need to blow off steam, I’m going to find a way to chill out. My stress impacts my family in ways I’d never suspected.
So while I’m still waiting for the call from another preschool parent telling me her kid told the story of our fight over their dinner table, so far that hasn’t happened. But, I know it could. So my husband and I are both being extra careful about how we let stress take us over and cause us to fight. Our kids are listening, who knew?