I was talking with a colleague-turned-friend of mine this week about how some people just don't know how to argue. There are rules, and if you don't know the rules, then maybe every disagreement seems like an unbearable confrontation. But if you know the rules, disagreeing is far less threatening and becomes a very important tool for working out a problem.
During our conversation, I mentioned that I have a very clear memory of my mom telling me the rules of arguing when I was about four.
I don't remember exactly why I was so mad at her, but I suspect she was drawing boundaries around my world, and I was pushing hard against those boundaries. I said to her, "I hate you." Can you imagine at four-year-old saying that to her mother? But I was a fiesty little person who loved experimenting with the power of words, and I knew even then that "hate" is one of the strongest words a person can use.
"Hold it," she said to me. I remember being really surprised. I don't know what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. Then she told me that we have rules in our house when we argue. They were:
1. We always love each other. No matter what. We do not hate. Ever.
2. I could dislike what she did or said, and I could even dislike her for right now, but again, we always love each other.
I was interested to learn that there were such rules, even for a thing like arguing. I probably amended my comment to something like, "I don't like you right now." And knowing my mother as I do, I'm very sure she said, "Ok. You don't have to like me right now. But you still have to clean up your toys." I was probably still mad, but having rules gave me tools for expressing my anger and frustration in a safe, healthy way.
As we got older, she added one more rule: Stick to the issue. No addenda, no additions, no "hey-and-while-I'm-mad-at-you-I'd-like-to-mention-that-I-was-really-frustrated-last-week-when-you..."
The day after our initial conversation, my friend at work told me that she and her husband were talking about my mom's rules for arguing, and how brilliant they think such rules are. And then my friend said, "What a great legacy to pass down to Hadley! I feel like you have such great stories to tell about things you've learned from your mom and dad."
I didn't realize how often I shared stories or lessons from my childhood, but as Jason and I try to figure out how to parent Hadley (and stay one step ahead of her), we look to our own families and childhoods to figure out what we want to emulate and what we'll do differently. I am definitely going to teach Hadley the rules of arguing; they serve me well still--especially when I'm having a contentious conversation at work or taking a call from a grumpy architect who thinks he should be featured in the magazine. (In those cases, the rule about always loving each other gets amended to "We always respect each other.")
So thanks, Mumsie, for having the foresight to teach Graham and me how to disagree. Heaven knows we practiced those skills often enough while we were growing up, but now you have two adult children who understand that disagreement is a part of life, not a threat to our relationships.
Now if only you could teach the grumpy architects a thing or two...