The Value of Good Arguments

Some quotes and paraphrases from the article “Argue with me” by Jay Heinrichs , featured in Wondertime Magazine Winter 2006-2007:

On p. 76 “Persuasion is powerful”…”And let’s face it: Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.”

Turn fights, where the goal is to dominate an opponent, into arguments, where you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side. Persuade your audience rather than slugging them. Persuasion is successful only when you think about what motivates your audience, when you take his or her feelings or goals into account.

The suggestions below comprise what Heinrich calls “Aristotle’s guide to dinner table discourse:”

  1. Argue to teach decision making. When you argue the various sides of an issue with your kids (“Beach or mountains this summer?”), they are learning to present different options (“both!”) and then decide which choice to follow.
  2. Focus on the future. Arguments about the past (“Who made the mess with the toys?”) or the present (“Good children don’t leave messes.”) are far less productive than focusing on what to do or believe: “What’s a good way to make sure that toys get cleaned up?” [Christine: not sure the problems with the examples are due just to their time frames.]
  3. Call “fouls.” Anything that impedes debate counts as a foul: Shouting, storming out of the room, or recalling past family atrocities should instantly make you choose the opposite side.
  4. Reward the right emotions. Respond to screaming and anger by not responding, except to say, “Oh come on. You can do better than that.”
  5. Let kids win sometimes. When they present a good argument, there’s no better teaching method than rewarding them. My overreliance on the slow cooker for instance made my son beg for “dry” food. “Even the cat’s meals,” he said, “aren’t all wet.” Good point. I served hamburgers next. Very dry hamburgers.

Some of my immediate personal reactions, or why I valued this article enough to quote it extensively: persuasion requires children to stretch out of egocentrism and could promote peace; the focus on how to do better in the future promotes nonjudgmental self-awareness; allowing a “win” based on merits of the argument helps kids learn that people are not their thoughts–we needn’t get so identified with our own ideas that being right substitutes for our value as persons. For more of Heinrich’s (rather than my) views on how and why to teach kids to argue, look for his book coming out in February: Thank You for Arguing; What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion.
For more about debate, see Mark’s post about the book Cross-X.

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