Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

Creating Constructive Conflict

Creating Constructive Conflict

Families are intense.  You put all that love, anger, frustration, eating, pooping, and sleep deprivation under one roof, and you have a pressure cooker (or Instantpot?) of potential conflict. Say I put my two kids on the carpet together, tell them to play nice, and walk into the kitchen – Is it possible that for the next 15 minutes I won’t hear any sounds indicating physical or emotional torment? Maybe by the time they are adults, but not likely. But even though conflict is inevitable, we feel terrible about it. We view it as a barrier to success. We try to hide our own arguments from our kids and preach “getting along” as one of the highest ideals. Last year my wife found a really cool article in the New York Times by Adam Grant, a Wharton School professor of management and psychology who argues that healthy conflict in our families is actually crucial in developing the creativity that leads to success. (1)

Grant uses the fascinating example of the Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville basically spent their entire lives together, but they weren't successful because they got along so well. They would argue about things for hours, and this conflict led to some of their greatest innovations. This seed of conflict was planted early on by their father, who valued arguments so deeply that he encouraged his kids to read lots of books by atheists even though he was a bishop!

Grant succinctly summarizes this key skill as the ability to “get hot without getting mad,” passionately arguing about something without getting personally angry at the other person in a way that affects your relationship. When we’re arguing, criticizing, and getting criticized, our brains are running at full speed. To get along swell with everyone all the time tends to be a barrier to independent thinking and funnels everyone into groupthink.

Grant also cites a 1999 study of adults in their 30s tasked with writing stories. (2) The most imaginative came from those whose parents had the most conflict 25 years earlier. In 2008, researchers looked at kids between the ages of five and seven. (3) They found that those whose parents had more constructive arguments felt more emotionally safe and were friendlier and more helpful towards classmates over the next few years. That’s big-time!

So what should we parents do? Just let our kids go at it all day? Not exactly – if your kids are like mine you know that’s going to end up with a toy to the side of the head. Parents really have two roles – to demonstrate how to have healthy arguments and to moderate our kids’ arguments when necessary.  Grant proposes four rules that seem like a good place to start:

            - Frame the argument as a debate rather than a conflict

            - Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong

            - Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective

            - Acknowledge where you agree and what you’ve learned as you close an argument

I don’t think any of those rules come naturally – they are skills you have to work on before you get “hot,” so you don’t end up getting “mad.” And obviously traumatic conflict that leaves kids feeling less secure is never beneficial. “It’s a sign of respect to care enough about someone’s opinion that you’re willing to challenge it,” writes Grant. I like that – the next time I’m arguing with my wife I’ll tell her it’s because I respect her so much 😊.

1. Kids, would you please start fighting? Adam Grant. New York Times. Nov. 4, 2017.

2. Childhood parenting experiences and adult creativity. Koestner, R. et al. Journal of Research in Personality. 1999, 33(1). 92-107.

3. Constructive and destructive marital conflict, emotional security and children’s prosocial behavior. McCoy, K. et al. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2008, 50: 270-279. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.01945.x

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