It’s also been well-known for years that the same principle applies to couples.
- Wives, if you want a well-behaved husband, be nice to him.
- Husbands, treat your wife nicely. Cherish her!
And so with children. Virtually every study I’ve ever read on parenting boils down to two little words ‘love’ and ‘boundaries’. Everything else is detail, i.e. the hard bit. If we show love to our children and set sensible boundaries, then by and large all will be well.
But real life of course is not so simple. We wake up in the morning and feel grumpy. Then he/she wakes up too … no, no, old joke, sorry. We get stressed or upset about work or family or health or children. We get exhausted. In short we lose the plot.
So what happens when we blow it? We argue with one another in front of the kids. We shout at the kids. We shout at the dog. Should we feel guilty that we are doing it all wrong? How much conflict is OK?
There’s a fascinating new study out this week in the journal Family Relations that addresses precisely this question. I think their findings will help set parents free from any guilt induced by bossy experts and children’s charities who have clearly never lost it with their own spouses or children or small furry animals. Grrr. There, I feel better already!
The study by Martina Zemp and colleagues at the University of Zurich looked at 375 parents, all of whom were part of a couple and all of whom had at least one child aged between 4 and 18. The main findings were as follows:
- Children had more ‘externalising problems – which means they fight or bully or don’t concentrate – when their parents were more negative than positive.
- Girls in particular showed more ‘prosocial behaviour’ – which means they are generally helpful or help those in need – when their parents showed them the highest ratios of positives to negatives.
What I take from this study is a couple of simple and rather liberating rules of thumb:
- It’s OK to lose the plot with one another (phew #1) provided the overall atmosphere at home is positive and loving.
- It’s OK to lose the plot with your children (phew #2) provided you show them two positives for every one negative.
This is of course in no way a licence to belt or abuse. But what it should tell us is that when we have that ‘I feel awful that I shouldn’t have treated him/her/them/it like that‘ feeling, then provided the home atmosphere is positive, and you’re showing two positives for each negative, your kids will turn out fine. Conflict between parents and conflict with kids doesn’t necessarily mean disaster.
And if you’re still worried, you can do what we do. Offer to pay for your kids counselling when they grow up. That should work.