Read Excerpt: 'NurtureShock' by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman look at new thinking about kids.

ByABC News via via logo
August 24, 2009, 11:20 AM

Dec. 8, 2009— -- According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, a little conflict in the home could actually be beneficial to kids as they learn through observation how to settle arguments.

It's just one of the topics covered in their book "NurtureShock." In the book, the science journalists explore misconceptions about raising children and how some of the modern strategies are doing more harm than good because they ignore nature.

Read a chapter from the book below, then click here to explore the "GMA" Library for more great reads.

Everyone's heard that it damages children to be witness to their parents' fighting, especially the kind of venomous screaming matches that escalate into worse. But what about plain old everyday conflict? Over the last decade, that question has been the specialty of the University of Notre Dame's Dr. E. Mark Cummings.

Cummings realized every child sees parents and caregivers carping at each other over such banalities as who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, pay the bills, or whose turn is it to drive the carpool. In studies where Cummings has parents make a note of every argument, no matter how small or large, the typical married couple was having about eight disputes each day, according to the moms. (According to the dads, it was slightly less.) Spouses express anger to each other two or three times as often as they show a moment of affection to each other. And while parents might aspire to shielding their kids from their arguing, the truth is that children are witness to it 45% of the time.

Children appear to be highly attuned to the quality of their parents' relationship – Cummings has described children as "emotional Geiger-counters." In one study, Cummings found that children's emotional well-being and security is more affected by the relationship between the parents than by the direct relationship between the parent and child.

So are parents distressing their children with every bicker? Not necessarily.

In Cummings' elaborate experiments, he stages arguments for children to witness and monitors how they react, sometimes taking saliva samples to measure their stress-hormone, cortisol. In some cases, these are two actors who go at it. In others, the mother too is a confederate. While waiting with the child, the mother gets a phone call from the "father," and she begins arguing with the father over the phone. (Her lines are mostly scripted.) In other variations of this experiment, the child just watches a videotape of two adults arguing, and she is asked to imagine the on-screen characters are her parents.

In one study, a third of the children reacted aggressively after witnessing the staged conflict – they shouted, got angry, or punched a pillow. But in that same study, something else happened, which eliminated the aggressive reaction in all but 4% of the children. What was this magical thing? Letting the child witness not just the argument, but the resolution of the argument. When the videotape was stopped mid-argument, it had a very negative effect. But if the child was allowed to see the contention get worked out, it calmed him. "We varied the intensity of the arguments, and that didn't matter," recalled Cummings. "The arguments can become pretty intense, and yet if it's resolved, kids are okay with it." Most kids were just as happy at the conclusion of the session as they were when witnessing a friendly interaction between parents.

What this means is that a parent who pauses mid-argument to take it upstairs – to spare the children – might be making the situation far worse, especially if they forget to tell their kids, "Hey, we worked it out." Cummings has also found that when couples have arguments entirely away from the kids, the kids might not have seen any of it but still are well-aware of it, despite not knowing any specifics.

Cummings recently has shown that being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for children – if it doesn't escalate, insults are avoided, and is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers. Cummings noted, "Resolution has to be sincere, not manipulated for their benefit – or they'll see through it." Kids learn a lesson in conflict resolution: the argument gives them an example of how to compromise and reconcile – a lesson lost for the child spared witnessing an argument.

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