It’s not pleasant for us to listen to, and it’s not even pleasant to participate in. Sibling squabbles are no one’s preferred soundtrack, but according to one expert, they’re an important part of growing up.
Parents need to let brothers and sisters argue, and model constructive arguing ourselves, says Adam Grant, the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, and a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Putting a quick stop to a sibling spat is good for our ears, but letting the kids stop it is good for them, he argues in an op-ed for the New York Times.
“The skill to get hot without getting mad — to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life. But it’s one that few parents teach to their children,” Grant writes. “We want to give kids a stable home, so we stop siblings from quarreling and we have our own arguments behind closed doors. Yet if kids never get exposed to disagreement, we’ll end up limiting their creativity.”
Grant points to an example of two brothers whose creativity—and heated arguments—changed the world. According to historical records, aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright had some hot sibling disagreements, but they were always able to see each other’s sides during fights. Their empathic style of arguing may have come from their father, a preacher who loved to debate.
According to Grant, our kids are just as influenced by us as the Wright brothers were by their dad, and we shouldn't shy away from having parental disagreements in front of our kids. As long as mom and dad are having a debate rather than a conflict, our kids actually benefit by seeing the argument.
“When parents disagree with each other, kids learn to think for themselves. They discover that no authority has a monopoly on truth. They become more tolerant of ambiguity. Rather than conforming to others’ opinions, they come to rely on their own independent judgment,” Grant writes.
His claims are backed by science. A recent study of kids between 5 and 7, found kids whose parents argued in a constructive way felt more emotionally safe, and showed greater empathy towards their classmates than their peers over a three year period.
So the next time you’re tempted to quash a sibling squabble, consider Grant’s advice and give your kids the tools to get the most out of their disagreement. Suggest they frame the discussion as a debate, rather than a fight, and teach them to “argue as if [they’re] right but listen as if [they’re] wrong.”
These lessons can elevate sibling spats from backseat bickering to an opportunity to trade perspectives. If they get good enough at debating, maybe your kids will be the next to set of siblings to take teamwork to new heights.