It can be our tendency as parents to avoid conflict with our children. But disagreements are a natural part of our parent/child relationship and a healthy (though seldom fun) interaction. The irony is that if we practice the art of respectful disagreement, our relationship will strengthen, deepen, and actually involve less real conflict.
I often hear from parents who share concerns about their children testing limits or behaving in a defiant, demanding, bossy, or aggressive manner. Others are alarmed because their kids seem insecure, fearful, anxious, fragile, or needy. In both cases, comfort with disagreement is often what’s missing in these relationships.
The parents I work with would never forbid their kids to disagree and risk sacrificing love and trust for blind obedience. I don’t seem to hear from that type of parent. No, the parents I engage with tend to work their tails off to be respectful, sensitive, loving, and get it right. And I can totally relate. However, conscientious parents like us still unknowingly discourage disagreements, albeit in kinder, less obvious ways. Like these:
We are tentative, cautious, or uncertain about setting limits that might cause children to react negatively (in other words, disagree), which gives our kids the message that disagreements are delicate territory that neither they nor we can handle safely.
In our hope to avoid disagreement, we attempt to convince and/or coax our child to agree by repeating and explaining ourselves: “I really need to cook dinner. If I don’t, we’ll be hungry. I see how upset you are. It’s just for a few minutes, I promise. I can play with you afterwards, but I really need to cook now. Look at those cool new dolls you have! They really want to play with you while I’m cooking our dinner.” This telegraphs to kids that we aren’t comfortable disagreeing and being decisive – that we need their permission.
We talk ourselves out of disagreeing by rationalizing: “Well, I really don’t mind rewashing the blue spoon for him if that’s the one he prefers. And changing my seat at the table to please him is no big deal. If he’s that keen on me bathing him, I can certainly cover for his daddy. I don’t care one way or another.” Problem is, children need us to care. They need our leadership. When they sense us subtly avoiding or evading their disagreement in our aim to please, they feel uncomfortably powerful and can get stuck compulsively trying to control us.
When our children do disagree, we see it as our responsibility to calm them down, soothe their feelings, make them all better. We might feel we need to immediately jump in with a hug, gaze into their eyes, or (as I often recommend) acknowledge their feelings. But if we do so in a sympathetic, “poor baby” way rather than genuinely accepting, this indicates that their feelings of disagreement are a problem that we don’t believe they are capable of handling without our assistance rather than a normal, healthy, everyday occurrence between two human beings.
So, to help make disagreements feel safe and comfortable for both parent and child:
Do understand that children unconsciously use these disagreements as a healthy release for their emotions. The more unreasonable the demand or disagreement, the more obvious that becomes. So don’t try to reason with the unreasonable: “I can’t get you that toy that’s across the room right now. Your brother’s just a baby, so why can’t you walk around him?” Instead, comfortably hold your ground while being on your son’s side in regard to his feelings: “You don’t want to go near the baby. I can get you the toy later, but not now.” The importance of letting our children’s feelings be (in all their pain and glory) can’t be overstated. This is the key to relaxed, happy kids and far fewer disagreements that can become serious conflicts.
Do confidently and clearly assert yourself with your child and believe yourself capable in your leadership role. Angry or annoyed aren’t confident, and neither are stern, frowning, or ultra-serious. Those don’t read as comfortable to our children. True confidence is the realization I’ve got this. It’s utter assuredness, and it is often upbeat and feels breezy to both of you. This doesn’t mean your child won’t have a meltdown when you won’t play with her, but it does mean she’ll feel secure when expressing her feelings, because she has a comfortable, capable parent.
Do recognize that your child is highly aware, but also small and unthreatening, and that you are big, mature, and experienced. Our children can seem gi-normous to us, but gaining a more realistic perspective will help you recognize that your child is neither a peer, nor a frightening ogre. There’s nothing he or she can send your way that you can’t handle with relative ease.
Do sweat the small stuff. With bright, assertive children especially, parents can get caught up allowing them to make too many decisions. To clear away the confusion, let all decisions regarding play belong to your child. Then consider easing up their decision load the rest of the time, like when their demand is for a certain cup or for you and Daddy to switch seats. This means kindly and comfortably overruling them while acknowledging, “You want me and Daddy to switch seats. We won’t be doing that, m’dear.” (A parent told me that when I used “m’dear” in an example, it helped her nail a confident, breezy attitude.) By trying to control this small stuff, your child is letting you know that you need practice disagreeing with him.
Don’t overthink the right response, ask permission, plead, or soft-peddle your case. Be assured. You can always change your mind.
Don’t expect children to disagree respectfully. This will happen in time. Maybe a long time, because kids are impulsive and have intense feelings to express. It’s our job to guide them by modeling respectful disagreements and then confidently handling their messier behaviors, while accepting their emotions.
Don’t buy into (but do secretly appreciate) fabulous performances. Here are a few of the impressive ones parents have recently shared with me:
- The 3-year-old who masterfully created a slow- mo visual effect which made it appear physically impossible for her to follow her mother’s direction to please get into her car seat quickly.
- The doted-on 3-year-old who immediately dissolved into a puddle of agony and despair, demonstrating a critical case of separation anxiety whenever her mother said she needed to stop playing with her and make dinner a few feet away.
- Also about a car seat (which apparently ranks incredibly high as the most commonly disagreeable idea to a child): A 20-month-old needed to take a thirty minute walk around a residential neighborhood before he could get into his car seat to go home. He just wasn’t feeling it. When his mother finally insisted and picked him up, he disagreed and screamed anyway.
Don’t get me wrong — I would never, ever laugh at a child expressing these feelings. I would always acknowledge these situations at face value: “You really don’t want to get in the car.” But allowing these performances to push our fear, worry, or annoyance buttons takes parents and children in an unhealthy direction.
In short and in summary, here are some reasons children need us to agree to disagree:
Growing up — individuating in a healthy manner — is all about being able to disagree with our parents.
Disagreement and conflict are a part of life.
Normalizing age-appropriate conflict and disappointment builds healthy resilience.
Assures children they have able leaders who love them enough to brave their feelings and behaviors.
Frees kids up from testing and controlling the parents that they need to take charge; and frees us from walking on eggshells, avoiding or trying to manage our children’s emotions. We get to be ourselves in this relationship.
Besides helping our child to really know us and vice versa, the freedom to disagree provides children with a superior relationship model they will naturally apply throughout their lives. It teaches social/emotional intelligence.
Taking our space in the relationship fosters our children’s self-respect as well as their respect for the boundaries of others. The freedom to disagree safely and comfortably is a key element of the healthiest relationships. Agreeing to disagree fosters mutual respect and trust.
And on that note, you can feel free to disagree with my advice. I’m okay with that.
I share my complete guide to respecful boundaries and disagreements in