Why You Should Surface Family Conflicts on Purpose


One of the early chapters of The Family Firm (don’t have it yet? get it now!) is about developing a “big picture” for your family. I suggest that families sit down and write out a mission statement and some key priorities; I also suggest being explicit about the ideal (or, well, the ideal possible) daily schedule. The book contains worksheets to make this easier (which you can also access here). 

A big part of this approach, for people who are parenting with someone else, is doing at least some of the writing separately. That is: you write it down, and so does your partner (or even your kids), and then you compare notes. The thinking behind this is to avoid anchoring (yes, that’s drawn from business-speak) your conclusions in the ideas of the first person who spoke. 

Let’s say we are trying to work out the activities we want to prioritize on the weekends. We sit down to discuss it together, and I talk first. I say, “Of course, music lessons are the top priority to make sure we get to.” My partner may be inclined to agree because I’ve spoken first; I’ve anchored the conversation. But if, in fact, their top priority is something else (beach time? soccer? church?), it’s now less likely that I’ll learn about that. By forcing us to state our priorities separately, we make it more likely that each individual’s real opinions are surfaced, and we can incorporate them.

I’ve talked through this approach many times over the past couple of months, post-publication, and one common reaction is a version of: This might work well if you agree with your partner about things, but my partner and I would definitely not agree on our main priorities, so this wouldn’t work for us. Reading into this, my sense is the problem lies in the discomfort with surfacing conflict on purpose.  

But the thing is: that conflict will be surfaced anyway. In fact, if you agree with your partner on everything, this exercise is not very important! It’s actually most important if you disagree.

Here’s a brief anecdote drawn from the book:

Let’s say bedtime by 8:30 is a key priority for me, and I’ve worked out the family schedule so that it happens every night that I’m around. Now imagine that I’m out of town for work and I call my partner at 10 p.m. and learn that the older child is still up, watching The Great British Baking Show.

“WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!” I yell through the phone.

“This is your rule, not mine,” comes the retort. “You want it done your way? Don’t leave town.”

The problem here stems — in part, at least — from failing to get on the same page about bedtime as a priority. If you have two (or more) parents involved in raising a child, they’ll inevitably parent slightly differently. And that’s OK! But where it becomes an issue is when we disagree on something one person really cares about; no matter what, you are going to have a conflict sometime.

What I’m suggesting with the write-it-down-in-a-workbook approach is that you surface the conflict on purpose, in a moment when you are not yelling. Yes, it involves having conflict. Yes, there will be uncomfortable conversations. But this discomfort is unavoidable, and it will be worse if you have it when you’re mad.

There is another value in having these (possibly hard) conversations on purpose. By being structured — by asking you to write down just the three or four things you care most about — you realize you cannot care the most about everything. If you find yourself (no shame, this is basically me) tempted to include the appropriate number of bath toys on your list of “top priorities,” there is a moment to realize you cannot die on every hill. Or every rubber duck.

A related point: if there are smaller things that you care a lot about and your partner doesn’t, you might just have to do them alone and accept that as the price. My spouse really cares about having checklists before we leave the house in the morning. I do recognize the value of this, but it’s just not that important to me. So he maintains the checklists (and I benefit).

What about COVID?

Some of the most common questions I get these days are about family COVID conflict.  

My partner is less cautious/more cautious/differently cautious than I am.

We disagree about child care or after-school activities for the kids.

I want to see my partially vaccinated extended family; he doesn’t. 

In a sense, this is easier because these conflicts must be surfaced. If there is a family wedding and you disagree about whether to go, you can’t just ignore the conflict, at least not indefinitely.  

The key, though, is that you want to surface it in a moment you are ready to really talk it through. When we have these discussions in our house, I have a tendency to want to bring up additional considerations whenever they occur to me, no matter how inconvenient. As we are trying to get the kids out the door… “What if we engaged in the following rapid testing protocol? Would you feel differently then?” 

This isn’t a helpful time to talk about something complicated, and it’s also a mistake to try to incorporate each individual consideration on its own.  

To think about how to approach this particular set of issues, I’ll throw you all the way back to Grandparents and Day Care, May 2020, and the five-step decision system. It’s a close parallel to the Four-F system that takes the front seat in The Family Firm. Both versions of this approach emphasize question framing, fact finding, and final decision-making.  

As in other parenting decisions, you cannot avoid the conflict about this, and it doesn’t make sense to try. What you can do is discuss it in a quieter moment. For example, not while you’re trying to get your child’s shoes on. Do as I say, not as I do.

In Summary

Surface your conflict on purpose! Trade a slightly harder moment now for many easier ones later. 

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