Don't shy away from the argument. There's nothing like a good barney to get your child's grey matter ticking over - so long as you can keep it constructive. Emma Cook on the benefits of a healthy debate
After Sunday lunch and a few glasses of wine, Jim and Jane are talking about a comedy film they saw last night. She thought it was hilarious. He says it was infantile and badly made. She jokes that he missed the whole point, probably because he's got no sense of humour; just like his mother. He's narked and tells her she has crass taste, always has had. She tells him he's a humourless snob. At this point their 10-year-old son, Jake, joins in, wanting to know what film they are talking about and why mummy's getting so heated.

Some couples with children avoid arguments like the plague. They find it embarrassing, even painful, themselves, and they assume that their children feel the same way. But recent research indicates that children do not benefit from serene, domestic bliss, where parents are in constant agreement. Instead, those couples who do row openly and feel able to express conflict and dissent are the ones who are more likely to produce high- achieving offspring.

In the survey, Dr Tony Cassidy, senior lecturer in psychology at Nene College of Higher Education in Northampton, compared the family backgrounds of 169 interviewees with their levels of motivation. "Children who learned to cope with conflicts - and I want to stress that this doesn't include violence - see them as challenges rather than threats," he explains. "They're more likely to have a stronger work ethic and feel that dealing with conflicts is about positive development. Really, it's about feeling that expression isn't suppressed."

Cassidy found that if this is the case, children from single-parent families are just as likely to be high-achievers as those who grow up with both parents, especially if there are more females in the family. "It would appear that increased numbers of males in a family tend to have a negative effect on cohesion and expressiveness," he says. "Perhaps this supports the traditional view that males are less willing to express emotions and become emotionally close to others" (often the cause of many a marital argument in itself).

Whether or not a child feels comfortable with confrontation depends on parental attitudes. Dr Elizabeth Mapstone, psychologist and author of Reasonable Men And Argumentative Women: The Psychology Of Argument, due to be published early next year, says: "There's a big difference in how people view it. If it's something your parents avoid then children can learn to see it as frightening. I remember being told by a three-year- old girl, 'Don't fight! Don't fight!' when I was having an interesting discussion with her mother. I said, 'We're just arguing.' But it was obvious that this was seen as a worrying situation within her family." Indeed, whenever mother tried to express an opinion, father would react vehemently; shouting and screaming. He didn't feel it was appropriate for his wife to argue on equal terms. In short, if a parent has to suppress emotions, it's more than likely their child will follow suit.

Denise Knowles, of relationship counselling service Relate, says: "How a child views anger will depend on how their own parents argue. It's good for them to see adults falling out, as long as there's an outcome involving some sort of negotiation and compromise. All too often, youngsters get the message that putting their point of view across is pointless."

Helena, 33, grew up in the firing line of her parents' rows, which made her feel deeply uneasy about emotional confrontation. "After their screaming matches, I was the one caught in the middle. My mum would snap in dad's earshot, 'Don't listen to him' and dad would play the same game - undermining her authority via me."

Knowles says: 'It's not a pleasant atmosphere when parents are constantly sniping at each other. All sorts of alliances get set up when nothing gets resolved. That's the message the child receives - however much you argue it doesn't get you anywhere."

Helena has certainly absorbed such a view. "I've always felt rowing is an absolute waste of time. It just makes me feel very emotional. The problem is my husband enjoys arguing and can't understand why it makes me feel so upset."

For many people shouting and sparring can often seem like evidence of incompatibility. If anything, it should be viewed as proof that a partner feels secure enough in a relationship to express a whole range of feelings. Feeling comfortable enough to assert strong views, without being opinionated, is an advantage in all areas of life. As Knowles says: " It carries on into everything - even feeling able to go back to a shop and argue about faulty goods."

This is what the high-achievers in Cassidy's survey can clearly capitalise on. They have the ability to question at a high level and always consider both sides of every issue rather than believe what they're told.

Peter, 32, a TV series editor, describes himself as "highly vociferous", which he views as an advantage in his career. "I never shy away from confrontation," he says. "I always ask lots of questions and enjoy challenging people's assumptions." His family are also extremely argumentative. "It is not unusual for myself, my sister and parents to scream and shout at each other at the meal table - all of us fighting to get our point of view across. I grew up feeling it was very natural to assert my opinion - even if it meant shouting louder than everyone else."

Yet, there is still a reluctance to argue openly in front of children, especially if they are young. Often, the prevailing instinct is to protect them from any emotional messiness.

Although Jane, 35, feels happy about expressing most emotions in front of her three-year-old daughter, Alice, her husband Rob feels uncomfortable. "Whenever we argue, he always says, 'Not now. Not in front of Alice.' But I am completely relaxed about our disagreements. It is part of the real world and she has got to get used to it.

"I feel strongly that there are three people in this relationship and if I express strong emotions then she's got a right to know how I'm feeling. In the same way, she knows she can express herself in front of us. She knows that she can depend on us and a row is very temporary."

If Cassidy's study is accurate then Alice should grow up enjoying healthy debate and viewing conflict as normal - even challenging. As Peter says, "The best thing about arguing is finding out what you feel. I admit I row about things - personal and political - without really knowing what I'm talking about. But if I thrash it out with someone else I come out knowing exactly where I stand in my own mind."

This is a sign of confidence - often people avoid arguments of any kind because they feel that they won't be listened to or that their view is somehow invalid. Knowles says: "In households where there's healthy debate you don't get the idea that one person's view is omnipotent. It makes kids more inquisitive and curious, and it gets the grey matter ticking over."