In most homes, regardless of parenting style, arguing with the kids is not encouraged. In fact, for most of us, it’s taken as a sign of disrespect. Indeed much of the arguing between kids and their parents is not helpful—berating us to change a decision they disagree with, taking out their frustrations with friends/homework/stress on us, or giving in to their natural defensiveness after making an error or poor choice. None of this furthers the relationship with us or bolsters their self-esteem.
But that is not quite the whole story. Recent research by Dr. Joseph Allen, a professor at the University of Virginia, points out the benefits of certain types of arguing between parents and children. That is, some forms of arguing actually strengthen our kids sense of identity, and very importantly, increases their ability to stand up to peer pressure. According to his studies, those children and teenagers that can effectively argue with parents are 40% more likely to say “no” to negative peer pressure.
So what is this type of arguing and how do we encourage it? It all comes down to emotional restraint, on our part. As they escalate in defensiveness, tone, and volume we need to stay calm. We need to listen to what they are saying—really listen. And as we hear their arguments we learn to set aside our own defensiveness enough to note their valid points, and acknowledge them, which is not necessarily agreement. Most important, we need them to see that they can influence our decisions. That is, we are open to reconsidering our position after hearing their input. This is true whether the topic is politics, curfew, summer camp, or where to attend college.
Part of how they come to trust us is by knowing that we will consider their ideas when we disagree with one another. And in those times when we blow it by reacting defensively we take the time in a moment of calm, often hours later, to reconsider their ideas. Then when we eventually come back to own our piece of the argument (translation: apologize), we take the time acknowledge the validity of one or two of their points. In these moments we will feel and see the relationship grow right before us, and just as importantly witness their deepening sense of self and trust in their ability to stand up for themselves, with peers and beyond.
This approach to teaching them to argue—through our behaviors of patience, reconsidering, acknowledging, and welcoming their influence in our thinking—takes time and is not easy. The outcome is, however, what we all want for our children and teenagers.
There is, however, one exception. If your child happens to be one of our champion debaters in the middle or upper school, well, I wouldn’t recommend arguing at all with them unless you are willing to be humbled! Huge kudos to all our debaters in both divisions for their unparalleled success in the last few weeks.