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Both May Be Right

“In every dispute between parent and child, both cannot be right, but they may be, and usually are, both wrong. It is this situation which gives family life its peculiar hysterical charm.” — Isaac Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld almost got it right, but not quite. Certainly, in every dispute between parent and child, both may be wrong. It’s also true that they both may be right; and to some extent, they usually are. Although parent/child disputes are typically treated as a special category, they are better understood merely as disputes, not particularly different from other disputes. Quite simply, people are disagreeing. That’s all there is to it.

When parents and children disagree, the dispute is viewed differently than other disagreements. In the latter, there is an assumed balance or parody between the participants. In the former, there is a strong tendency to assume that the parent is right and the child is wrong. For the child to pursue the contrary view is disrespectful.

When adults disagree, they seldom dispute the observable facts. They are usually disagreeing about the correct interpretation, meaning, or significance of those facts. When parents and children disagree, it’s usually over “enough;” early enough, late enough, clean enough, good enough, well enough, and so on. Even so, the dispute represents a difference in point of view, opinion, or interpretation. The point is that the issue is normally not the kind of situation where someone is right and someone is wrong. Both parties are at least partially right. Instead of understanding it as a dispute or argument, it needs to be seen as a negotiation, not dissimilar from any other negotiation.

This converts most parent/child disputes to either negotiations or unilateral decision making. The parent either negotiates or lays down the law, so to speak. There is no dispute or argument. Deciding which is appropriate is difficult; but Virginia Satir has a perspective that helps, “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible — the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”

Of course, Sidonie Gruenberg was right, “Home is the place where boys and girls first learn how to limit their wishes, abide by rules, and consider the rights and needs of others;” but Thomas Moore was also right, “Family life is full of major and minor crises — the ups and downs of health, success and failure in career, marriage, and divorce — and all kinds of characters. It is tied to places and events and histories. With all of these felt details, life etches itself into memory and personality. It’s difficult to imagine anything more nourishing to the soul.”

The conclusion is this. Lay down the law with your children, when you must. The rest of the time, negotiate, using the same tact and interpersonal charm you use with everyone else with whom you occasionally disagree.

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