Arguing with Your Child
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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You know the scenario: your child says something, you disagree, and suddenly you find yourself locked in a battle of words. Worse, your child appears to have been rehearsing her talking points and you have trouble marshaling a coherent argument. Suddenly, you feel off-balance: aren’t you supposed to be the adult? Isn’t your word supposed to be law? Arguing with your child can make it feel like the kids are running the show.
This is the point at which many moms and dads just bellow, “Because I said so!” But there’s a better way. There’s a way you can actually argue to help teach your child how to communicate.
First, keep in mind that no one should argue with a child under the age of three. Instead, just say what you want to see happen. If you can offer a choice (“would you like to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?”), great. If you want to offer a rationale (“please hold my hand so I’ll stay safe crossing the street”), fine. But don’t argue with a toddler. Just say what you want.
Second, remember that long, logical explanations are incomprehensible to kids under age eight. You want to help your preschool and primary-grade child understand that there are reasons why you’re right about something but it’s not likely they will actually grasp your reasoning. So keep things simple. At the same time, while your children’s arguments might be ridiculously naïve, don’t tell them how ridiculous they are. You want children to learn to think and you don’t want to crush their initiative. So say “Hmm.. That’s a good idea. But this or that is the reason why I can’t go along with that…”
If you are successful in giving your young children reasons for things, you will find at about age nine that the tables turn: they become masters at supplying their own reasons back. This is not so much about arguing – though that’s what it will look like – but about using newly-developed powers of logical thinking. Suddenly, your child has the brain power to craft a solid argument. And so, just as suddenly, everything is worth arguing over.
It’s as if your child just acquired a new skill – like the ability to whistle, for instance – that has to be practiced every moment of the day. This is not a bad thing. Your role is not to squelch argument but to shape your child’s education in arguing. She needs to learn how to do this politely and effectively.
This is why “because I said so!” is not always the best solution to a debate. It doesn’t demonstrate the use of reasoning and logic. It doesn’t teach how to listen to an opposing argument, how to acknowledge points of agreement, and how to counter with effective arguments of one’s own. It doesn’t teach compromise. You want your child to be able to think on his feet, to know his own thoughts clearly, to be a good listener, and to be courteous both when he’s right and when he’s wrong.
You model what polite disagreement looks like: you make your point, you listen to your child’s rejoinder, you respond back. Eventually the two of you achieve compromise or one or the other concedes. Do stop the conversation if it gets out of control (“Okay, we’re not getting anywhere. I’m getting angry and so are you. Let’s talk about this again after lunch”). Do keep things civil. What you want to do is establish patterns for arguing, a protocol. This is not so much about winning as it is about teaching.
This will pay off when your preteen child gets older, and the disagreements get more serious. If you have taught your child how to argue with you, and if you have demonstrated that you fight fair, your teen is more likely to ask your permission instead of sneak behind your back. Your teen is less likely to pout, slam doors, or put a fist through the wall and more likely to talk things out. Both of you will know what to do if the conversation gets out of hand. Both of you will have a history of respectful disagreement that will keep your relationship intact even as arguments develop around deeply important issues.
If you take the time to teach your child how to argue, you will win every time, even those debates in which you concede that your child is right. Developing a great relationship with your child, and developing your child’s powers of thinking and communication, are the winning outcomes of great parenting.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.