HOW TO ENJOY A FAMILY QUARRELCategory: Leisure
There are grounds for deep suspicion, I think, in the idea of a family group which does not occasionally dissolve into a mass of screaming squabblers. I know of families where no word of dissent is ever permitted before — or from — the children, and these tend to be families where no word of tenderness either is ever permitted before — or from — the children.
Not to put too fine a point on it, if two or three or four or five or six people live together in one house, sooner or later something is going to come up about which they do not see eye to eye and are prepared, to say so. The children are displeased with their parents, perhaps, or displeased with each other or some outside element; it is even possible that the parents are displeased with their children. It would be unsafe to imagine that the average family could keep these emotions unspoken without some damage to the psyche, particularly the parents.
In our family we are six — two parents and four children — and we are given to what I might call unceasing differences of opinion, more or less violent. Almost any subject from politics to small variations in daily dress, can find us lined up in formation on two bitterly opposed sides. [...]
We parents learned very early that it was safest to hold a united front on all major issues in front of the children. Since four of the members of our .family are children, we have also learned never, never, never to put anything to democratic vote. Time after time we found ourselves outvoted four to two and involved in things like going on a picnic tomorrow, no matter whether it rains or not, and inviting those nice people with all the children to come for a week-end…
Family arguments tend to be of two sorts, although one is not necessarily more peaceful than the other: the personal, or no-discus- sion-before-company type; and what for want of a better word might be called the impersonal — philosophical, political or moral questions from the world at large. (The situation in the Middle East, for instance, or whether it is fair not to let children see certain films, or the age at which it is proper for a girl to start wearing lipstick.)
On all general subjects, naturally, the children hold violently partisan opinions, dictated by what they saw on television, what the teacher said or how Kathy’s daddy voted. My husband and I hold opinions which are the result of reasoned, mature thought. Of course, the ending to our discussions comes only late at night, after the children are in bed, when my husband and I are still patiently explaining to each other in level voices the complete justice of our own views…
The family argument usually takes place round the dinner table, somewhere half way through the main course, when dessert seems impossibly remote beyond the mounds of spinach and the novelty of eating again has largely worn off. Anyone, of course, may start the fray, but once begun, certain immutable ground rules apply and must not be broken.
Approximately the ground rules may be stated as: the battle must be joined in a spirit of high moral indignation and a correspondingly high voice. In the case of an argument on the impersonal level, some suitable particular reason for starting the subject should be given, such as, “Miss Blank made us learn all the parts of the alimentary canal!” or, “What good is geography, anyway?” [...]
The more vivid the detail, the more forceful the complaint. “He hit me and scratched me and pulled my hair and bit me” is clearly a finer many-angled trench to fight from than merely: “He hit me.”
Once the arguable premiss has been decided, counter-attack may consist of flat denial (“I never did”), counter-accusation (“Well, you hit me first”) or personal insult (“Anyway, you’re nothing but a big baby”). In the case of parental involvement, case histories may be admitted into evidence (“Since you are so consistently rude to members of your own family, I can see no reason why we should believe that you are civil to your sister’s friends”), and dire prediction may be used as a pseudo threat (“The main part of growing up is the acceptance of responsibility, so a little girl who is going to wear lipstick and fancy shoes will naturally want to be more capable in the home and can, therefore, expect to wash and dry up every night”). [...]
If the father of the family speaks, whether in anger or no, absolute silence must be maintained, although it is not necessary to pay any particular attention to what he is saying.
If the mother of the family speaks, by heaven everybody had better look alive.
Any remark like, “But gosh, that was years ago when you were young,” is regarded like dirty tactics.
The father determines who shall have the floor by shouting “Quiet!” and half-rising from his chair.[...]
Anyone who leaves the table in anger must go without sweets afterwards.
Any apology fairly earned must be delivered, in a cold and superior voice, as grundgingly as possible (“Well, I said I was sorry”), the mother and father excepted; their apologies must be graceful and complete to teach the children manners.[..]
In addition to these formal ground rules, certain house rules apply in every family, differing, of course, according to the number of combatants, their several ages and the varying weak spots of the parents. In our family the basic house rules are:
The father, who is a man wholly without prejudice, will not suffer disorder. In his presence pictures must be straightened, books lined evenly on the shelves, cutlery correctly placed. It must be understood that no child of any age will argue with Daddy on this subject. (The day when Jeannie in a white rage deliberately disarranged all the things on her father’s desk is a day none of us will soon forget.)
The mother is to be regarded as entirely unreasonable and beyond the reach of logic on such subjects as adequate clothing, riding bicycles in the street, table manners in general and writing Christmas thank-you letters.
The fourteen-year-old son will not permit his privacy to be invaded. Tidy he is not, nor clean, but no one may touch anything that belongs to him.
The friends of the eleven-year-old daughter may not be criticised. She cannot stand that nasty Linda, she is never, never going to walk home with Janet again. Mollie’s behaviour is too dreadful; but they are her friends and no one else may cast the second stone.
The eight-year-old daughter is not to be crossed. She does things in a particular Sally way, and that way is right. Anyone who disagrees is either insane or, at best, hopelessly ignorant. In all of this she strongly resembles her father.
The five-year-old son is. adamant on personal dignity. He will listen, reason, and even consent to stop banging that gun against the wall if he is asked nicely, but at your peril lift him, push him or use force against him because he is small. [...]
Once the rules are clearly established the family argument should move , quickly and effortlessly. Consider, for example, our family
skirmish on the question of the television room, a general sore point anyway.
We have our television set in a small room, furnished with a sofa, two chairs and three walls of bookcases full of books. In front of the sofa is a small round table with two ashtrays on it and, in theory, nothing else. Apart from the television set, there are a radio, a gramophone, and the attachments for the tape recorder. All four children watch television at some time during the day and the sofa is convenient for a parental nap after dinner. The room is, in fact, what in a less die-hard family might be called a recreation room, or even a music room, or — stretching a point — a library. [...]
One late afternoon recently my husband retired to lie down on the sofa and watch part of a test match before dinner. He came storming out at once announcing that no one, no one, was ever going to watch television in this house again, or at least only over his dead body. The books had been knocked crooked in all the bookshelves because Barry and Sally had been roughhousing. Jeannie had left her sewing box and a book borrowed from Linda on one of the chairs, and Laurie had been doing his home-work in there, and the ashtrays were full of torn scraps on which Latin phrases were scrawled, and the floor was covered with little pieces of thread and pencil sharpenings. I had left a sweater over the back of the other chair.
As I was clearly one of the sinning parties, I had no choice but to take my sweater out quickly and attempt to modify the course of justice at the same time making it cle&r to the children that Daddy and I were of one mind on everything. I chose to take the unassailable stand that I had told the children and told the children to pick up their things, and losing television was no more than they deserved for being so messy; but at the same time unless something was devised to occupy all four of them during the time I was making the dinner, it would probably be impossible for me to get on to the table any of the refinements — like apple charlotte — of which my husband is very fond.
My husband said that none of that mattered at all; he would not have the television room left in disorder. Suppose, he demanded fiercely, suppose someone had dropped in to borrow a book? Would we like to have this literate stranger find the books crooked? The ashtrays full of paper? Sweaters lying everywhere?
No, Laurie said, that was not fairly argued. In the first place,” Dad never lent books to anyone because it left spaces in the bookshelves. And Jeannie had borrowed the book which caused all the disorder from Kate, and he bet that Kate’s bookshelves looked even worse.
Jeannie said they certainly did not; what did Laurie know of Kate’s bookshelves anyway, always thinking he was so clever?
I said the sweater was mine and I had taken it off because I was going to vacuum-clean the Venetian blinds in the television room;
Would my husband, 1 asked hotly, want his literate book-borrower to find his Venetian blinds dusty?..
Sally said she had not been roughhousing. Barry had pushed her and she had given him a kind of a little small kick.
Barry said she had kicked him hard, right here,-and anyway it was Sally who had fallen off the sofa on to the bookcase.
Laurie said if he couldn’t do his homework in the television room where could he do it? Because how could he work in his room with Jeannie playing rock and roll on her gramophone all day long?
My husband said now wait a minute, Jeannie had every right in the world to play her own gramophone, and in any case rock and roll was a legitimate sort of music.
Laurie said that anyone who could call that -junk legitimate didn’t know a tenor sax from a clarinet, and he could pl&y records that would make Jeannie’s records sound like a steel mill going full blast.
Sally and Barrie began to fidget over their apple charlotte and their father told them absently to run along and watch television; and he said to Laurie, all right, he would take Laurie’s records and Jeannie’s records and show Laurie what was meant by jazz, and in Latin too, if Laurie preferred.
While they were getting out the records I expused myself from the table and went in and straightened the television room.
(From How to Enjby a Family Quarrel S. Jackson, Home and Gardens, October 1958)