Pope Francis has been offering parenting advice and, sad to say, it is rubbish.
It would, perhaps, be more surprising if it were sensible. The Catholic church is an institution dominated by avowedly celibate men who are not meant to have children. Then there is its – how shall we put it? – distinctly patchy recent record of prioritising the needs of children, which you would think might disqualify it from opining about anything much.
Still, the pope is the pope and a lot of people take him seriously – and what he has said is that it’s fine to have a blazing row with your partner, just not in front of the children. Take your slanging match about who was supposed to have organised the dishwasher repair out of sight and earshot.
Anyone who has actually had children will know this is pointless. The one thing I have learned from bringing up four children over what feels like an awfully long period of time – and which is, in fact, more than 30 years – is that they are always subtler and more sophisticated than you think. They are invariably one step ahead.
You can go into the bedroom and shut the door and seethe at each other through gritted teeth, more or less inaudibly, and they can still tell that something is up. They won’t know what it is, though. They may jump to the conclusion that you’re getting a divorce when you are only having a fight about poor recycling practices.
The pope was, perhaps in the way of popes, quite dogmatic. “I would like to give advice,” he said, during a baptismal mass at the Vatican. “Sorry, but I recommend this: never fight in front of the children, never.”
“Never” presumably means that if you are in a confined space – the car, say – and your partner says something patently offensive, you are meant to suppress your cries of outraged ridicule until some later stage. By which time your annoyance will have curdled into disdain and left you in a thoroughly bad, unaccommodating mood.
Children are like Geiger counters for their parents’ emotions, says E Mark Cummings, a psychology professor who has written a book about the effects of parental conflict on children. Yet while children are almost supernaturally attuned to parental unhappiness, they don’t necessarily possess the rational capacity to make sense of it. Pretending that you are not massively annoyed by your idiot partner when a child can tell you that you are is not, then, an act of kindness.
Better an explosion of honest irritation, promptly kissed-and-made-up, than festering hostility. Emotion, like water, will always find a way out, and repressed emotion is likely to emerge as sniping or cold hostility, hours after you should have acknowledged that while idiotic, your partner may also have a point and anyway is rather lovely.
Expert opinion differs wildly on the merits of arguing in front of the children, to the point of being almost comically contradictory. On the one hand, it’s the most dangerous thing you can do, raising levels of cortisol to dangerous levels, disrupting their sleep patterns, causing illness and anxiety. On the other it is a useful teachable moment, demonstrating conflict resolution and the enduring power of love.
This unhelpfully conflicting advice is explained by the fact that the experts are talking about quite different things. There are disagreements about the dishwasher and the recycling, and then there are disagreements about acts of betrayal, affairs, or spending all the money: long-term, horrible things that are better described as being profoundly at odds.
Clearly, if you need to debate sex or affairs or money, the place to do it is not at the kitchen table when you’re trying to get the kids off to school. But there’s a plausible case to be made for honest expressions of emotion about the small things so as not to get to the point of quarrelling about the big ones.
It’s not particularly helpful for children to think that marriages are conflict-free zones. On the contrary, they need to understand that it’s possible to disagree and still be an indivisible unit, and that it’s perfectly possible to find your partner the most tiresome, inept, hopeless person on the planet and still vastly prefer them to anyone else.
Children are really remarkably smart about these things. They feel what’s going on, even if they can’t begin to articulate it. As so often with questions of family harmony, of course you do have to be careful about whom you choose to do your parenting with. What you need to look for is someone who will indulge you in the venting of your (in my case, invariably justifiable) frustrations and who will, an hour later, quite rightly acknowledge that you’re adorable.
Geraldine Bedell is a journalist, author and founding editor of Gransnet.