Why Arguing with Young Children Is on the Rise

How to stem the tide at home

Posted May 24, 2016

Walking into my local coffee bar recently, it was immediately clear that a preschooler and his mother had been at it for a while. While waiting in line, the little boy protested, saying, “It’s not fair. You get a doughnut and not me!” The mother continued alternating pleas and deals to get her son to move out of line, saying things like “You have to get out of people’s way!” and “Do you want a fruit cup? Play with Mommy’s cell phone? See the ducks on the way home?” Like many millennial moms, she wanted her child to understand why he must comply. Instead of cutting a deal, however, his arguing intensified. She finally reached her limit, said, “Jamie, I’m done here,” and threatened to walk out. The arguing stopped and the wailing began. We’ve all been there.

Many are of the opinion that familial arguing has increased. Whatever the reasons for that increase, whether we take our cues from entertainment, the internet and/or the current political climate, most can agree that civility begins at home. It’s where children learn how, and how not, to argue.  It’s where they watch us do our own complaining, yelling, arguing and using ‘colorful’ language with other adults. They also learn that dads tend to respond less to (and are less bothered by) arguing than moms. It’s also where they learn to manage their impulses and talk about their worries and needs by being listened to and comforted when distressed, just the way adults do. Here are a few things parents, like Jamie’s mom, can do when an argument arises. 

  • Alexander, the main character in Judith Viorst’s wonderful Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, complains that it’s not fair about not getting new sneakers when his brother did. If Jamie said this to his mother, one strategy would be for his mom to say, “It may not seem fair right now because you don’t need new sneakers. When you need something, you usually get it and then it seems fair to you. Those are our family rules, discussion over.” Making sure it’s understood that the discussion is over is the crucial component.
  • Let’s say that Jamie is arguing with his mom about picking up his blocks. Mom, keeping her cool, might announce, “I’m setting the timer for five minutes. Any blocks not put away when it rings will be locked up. It’s your choice, Jamie.” “Discussion over” is implied. Try not to include the oft-heard concluder “Okay?” because the child will never think it’s okay, and you are just inviting the next arguing match.
  • It is a good idea for parents to change their behavior first and not wait until the child does what the parent wants. When Jamie’s mom feels herself being sucked into the argument vortex, she should stand firmly and silently for 10-30 seconds, avoid eye contact, breathe a few times and then announce something like “I am not arguing any more so that I can help you learn how to manage yourself when you don’t get your way.” After doing this a few dozen times, it usually slows the arguing to a tolerable pace. Silence, without the shaming, is a parent’s most powerful tool. 

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).