Go Ahead, Argue With Your Kids!

Admittedly, the idea of teaching a child to argue seems strange. Along with eating, moving, and occasionally napping, disagreeing appears to be second nature to a small person. Something we don’t always think about as big people is the fact that an argument, at least a good one, is much more than just disagreement or opposition. It’s a way to rationally present a point of view, and more importantly, back it up with solid reasons. It’s a way to communicate and test ideas objectively. If this sounds like something that’s beyond a child’s capabilities, reconsider. Teaching your child to argue, instead of just disagree, is not only doable, but it equips them with a survival skill that’s essential to learning and living in the 21st century.

If you think about it, all of us, including our children, are bombarded with arguments on a daily basis, and not just from other people in our lives. Every advertisement we see is an argument. It subtly screams “You need to have this, and here’s why.” Books, magazines, music, movies, television shows and movies are chock-full of implicit arguments about how we should look, act, and think about ourselves and others. Politics is a series of arguments about how our country/province/state/city should function, and who should decide. The internet pretty much exists to present arguments about what’s real, what’s true, what’s good, and what’s useful.

It’s become cliché to say that we’re bombarded with information, much of it being intended to persuade us that “This is the way things should be.” It’s also pretty cliché to say that most of the arguments being quietly slipped into our perception are faulty, and it’s precisely for these reasons that argumentation skills are so vital for children. We can complain that they’re being swamped with and negatively influenced by misinformation, or we can teach them to pull information apart, analyze it, and formulate and test their own ideas.

So how do you teach a child to argue effectively? Here are few general guidelines:

• Teach your child the difference between an opinion and an argument. It’s easy enough for someone to say “That’s what I think.” It’s more difficult, but also essential to be able to explain why.
• Discourage wishful thinking. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true.
• Communicate that it’s essential to consider a variety of viewpoints and new reasons. Ideas need to be tested and evaluated before being dismissed.
• Encourage your child to read between the lines. Reasons given to support an argument are of course important, but what isn’t given can be just as important.
• Introduce the notion of counterexamples. As your child if they can imagine a situation in which an argument wouldn’t work.
• Recognize that learning to put together and take apart arguments is a lifelong practice. It’s not like learning times tables or how to tie one’s shoe.
• Make arguments fun and relevant to their age group. Start out by constructing arguments about their favourite stories or movies and work your way up to bigger issues as they grow.

Many parents worry that teaching their child to argue effectively will lead their child to question authority. While it’s true that young people do need the guidance and direction authority figures provide, they also deserve to have people in charge who think rationally and are willing to explain themselves. If we’re going to teach our children not to trust just anyone, we need to give them good reason to trust us.

Learning to be skilled in arguments doesn’t dampen creativity, and doesn’t negate emotional responses either. If anything, it makes children even more self-aware, with a greater understanding of their relationships with other people, and with the world around them. Dr. Susan Gardner, co-founder of the Vancouver Institute of Philosophy for Children, sums it up nicely:

“Thinking is essential for constructive communication, for healthy mental and emotional development, for dealing with the pressures and counter-pressure of life, for good judgement, and self-growth. But, thinking is not something that “just happens”; it needs to be learned. Children need to learn what counts as a reason; how to tell the difference between good and faulty reasoning; how to really listen to opposing viewpoints; how to build on the ideas of others; and ultimately how to ground their actions in solid judgments. Teaching children how to think gives them the tools to create a flourishing connected life of which they can be justifiably proud. We can do this. We must do this. We owe it to our children.”