It seems fair to say that the level and quality of discourse in our culture is at a low point. The way we discuss issues seems only to increase confusion, anger and distrust while moving us away from common ground and real solutions. This trend strains the very fabric of who we are as a people and even threatens our interpersonal relationships as individuals.
One of the things that is missing from our national conversations is the skill of argument.
Over the course of my 13+ years of marriage with my wife Julie, we have had maybe four or five fights. But we have had a ton of arguments. This may seem like a contradiction, but understanding the difference between a fight and an argument is very important.
The times we fought, we felt hurt and angry. We lashed out with no other objective than to resolve those emotions. It was combative.
Argument, on the other hand, has a clear objective that both parties are trying to get to and, for the sake of this article, we will look at two kinds of argumentative objectives: seeking objective fact and seeking resolution for a disagreement.
Julie has been a healthcare practitioner almost all of her adult life. Before I found martial arts in my early twenties, I had spent my life planning to become a doctor. Needless to say, we get pretty nerdy about medical stuff. And when we are nerding out together, one of us will sometimes get their facts wrong (admittedly, this is usually me).
When this happens we both want to be right. Being right feels pretty awesome! But what is more important to both of us is the need to know the truth. So when we argue over this type of disagreement, we may defend our side, but only in pursuit of fact. Once the facts disprove our position, we easily concede the point and move on feeling richer for knowing the truth.
When we have argued to resolve a disagreement, there is often a lot more room for passion because we often disagree over things that are more personally meaningful to each of us.
For example, let’s say that it is date-night and we are planning one of our rare opportunities for child-free grownup time and trying to decide where we want to eat. We both get excited and name completely different restaurants. At first it seems that our positions are immovable, because we are both excited about our own suggestion, but not very enthusiastic about the suggestion of the other.
So we step back to figure out what we really want. She named a Mexican restaurant, I named one with Southern home-style cooking. Our argument digs deeper and we find that what’s really important to her is that she is craving a skirt steak with high-quality chimichurri sauce. For me, the food isn’t as important as making sure the environment is quiet enough that we can talk and reconnect before jumping back into parenting.
In the end, we decide to go to a Mexican restaurant that is different than the one Julie suggested, but has both really delicious skirt steaks and a peaceful ambiance.
In the end, we had an argument. But the argument was a tool for clarifying both of our needs and finding a solution that best satisfied those needs. Of course, we don’t always find a perfect solution like the one just described. But the years of approaching arguments in this way has increased the quality of our solutions in general and made it much easier for us to concede issues to each other because we both feel that the other respects our needs.
So what does all of this have to do with your child?
Effective arguing is a skill that needs to be developed. When your son or daughter has a disagreement with another child, it is typically best to let them deal with it themselves so that they can learn what works and what doesn’t. But it is also important afterwards to help them understand conflicts that they have difficulty managing. You can point out strategies that may have been more effective for them as well as helping them understand the perspective and needs of the other child.
This may seem fairly obvious, and most parents are inclined to do this on some level. What may be less obvious is how important it is for you to argue in front of your child. Modeling and social learning are essential to child development, and much of what your child will learn about his or her own emotions–as well as how to have relationships with others–will come from watching you.
Julie and I often disagree in front our daughter. This gives her a chance to see how we can have a conflict, but still have respect and affection for each other. She gets to see how we can express our needs while still valuing the other’s feelings and perspective. And she gets to see how conflict–and the resolution of that conflict–is not only inevitable in a relationship, but is an essential path to a relationship being healthy, thriving and capable of growing as two people evolve in their own lives.
Of course there are some disagreements we keep to ourselves. This mainly has to do with whether or not the topics are appropriate for a child her age.
You can also help your child better argue through teaching critical thinking skills and empathy. The first develops a value system where the pursuit of objective truth is more important than the attachment to a personal belief (the source of many intractable conflicts). The second give argument the chance to become a compassionate exercise in seeking common ground for a greater good between the two parties.
In addition to modeling skillful argument, you should engage your child in argument. Riding a bicycle in front of your child will only go so far in helping your child to learn how to ride one themselves. At some point, they have to get on their own bike and try to ride. In the same way, they need to be able to practice argument with you.
I don’t mean that you should let your child be contrary and emotionally self-indulgent. I mean that if your child has a position that is different than yours, they need to have the opportunity to describe it, defend it and get feedback on the persuasiveness of their argument.
You have to allow for this slowing the decision-making process down, but it can refine your child’s understanding of argument and critical thinking. It can also create situations where you find yourself persuaded by their argument. It is a powerful learning experience when a child sees their parent gracefully admit that they are wrong.
Clearly, we as a culture are not skilled at argument. Volume, insults and drama trump the higher pursuit of objective fact and common ground. In losing the ability to seek a greater good in our conflicts, we all suffer individually. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children these skills so that they have the chance to do things better than we have!