Nearly every weekend, Jennifer and Keith Yanowitz have the same old fight. "I can predict it," says Jennifer, an advertising account manager in New York City and the mother of daughters Alexandra, 5, and Jordan, 3. "Keith and I take turns getting up with the girls around 7 a.m. so one of us can sleep late. When it's my turn, I always make a healthy breakfast while the kids watch only a few minutes of TV," she explains. "Then, we get dressed and read books or head to the playground. I like the girls to be busy and active in the morning."
The scenario is a bit different when Dad's in charge. "When I walk into the living room, the shades are drawn and the girls are still in their pajamas and wired because they've been glued to the TV for three hours," Jennifer says. "Keith is working on his laptop and instead of a proper breakfast at the table, he has only given them a snack, like a few pieces of fruit."
As far as Keith is concerned, one morning of hanging out isn't a big deal. He tries to get his wife to lighten up, but she's already shifted into drill-sergeant mode: "You're kidding, right? We're going out. Alexandra, get dressed. Jordan, try going to the potty." Jennifer says that her husband is a terrific father and that most of the time they support each other. "But this is a real sore spot between us," she admits. "We've discussed it, he promises not to do it -- and nothing changes! It makes me crazy." In a flash, their conversation escalates into a confrontation and the girls jump in too: "Mommy, Daddy, stop!" "The whole mood of the day shifts -- and not in a good way," says Jennifer.
Honestly, haven't we all been there? At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves arguing with our partner in the presence of little ears. "It's impossible to agree all the time -- and wrong to pretend you do," says Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City.
The problem is, fighting in front of the kids affects them more than we realize. "Children are emotional Geiger counters," says E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, and an expert in how family relationships affect child development. "Even 6-month-olds are acutely sensitive to all types of conflict between Mom and Dad -- that includes bickering, hostility, and defensiveness, as well as physical fights." A handful of studies have shown that blood pressure rises in infants when parents argue within earshot. They may not understand the words, but they register the conflict and try to figure out what it means.
In fact, new studies conducted jointly by Dr. Cummings's team and researchers at the University of Rochester found that parents' relationship with each other, and how they handle everyday conflicts, are critical for a child's well- being. When parents get along well, a child's sense of security deepens and he can confidently explore and learn about his world. "But frequent, unresolved fighting chips away at that confidence, triggering sadness, anxiety, and fear in children of all ages," Dr. Cummings explains.