This week is Free Speech Week, celebrating our country’s unique rights to express our opinion. Perhaps because I’m a lawyer, or perhaps because I’m just argumentative, I think the right to freely discuss ideas is an essential foundation of a free society. Unfortunately, much of our society uses that freedom to yell angrily at each other, and schools seem to actively encourage students to demonize some opinions. It is more important than ever that we parents teach our children how to respectfully discuss their point of view with people who have a different opinion. Separating ideas from emotions can be particularly hard for children who have suffered trauma, but it is an important skill that we need to help them learn as early as they can.
Helping our kids find a healthy way to disagree, both inside and outside the family, may be one of the most important things we can teach them. Here are ten tips that I’ve learned (often through making big mistakes) to help teach our kids the art of respectful disagreement.
1. Model Respectful Behavior When Disagreeing.
As in everything else that our children learn from us, they learn more from our actions than our words. We are their role model, like it or not. Our kids need to see us deal with people in a respectful manner, no matter how deep our disagreements. We have to show them how one keeps a calm tone and doesn’t take disagreements personally. We have to stick to facts and our observations (including how the disagreement makes us feel), avoid name-calling, keep a calm tone of voice, and even take a few deep breaths before responding..
Of course, our children have to see these traits when they are the ones arguing with us. But it’s just as important for them to see us work through healthy disagreements with another family member in a respectful way. Most of our kids have suffered through watching adult relationships fall apart. They need to see how adults can disagree with each other while keeping a relationship strong.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be perfect. I certainly can’t claim that I’ve always remained calm during disagreements with either my husband or my kids. But my kids were able to see me respectfully disagree most of the time, and see me apologize (even through gritted teeth) when I fell short.
2. Place Limits on Process, Not Topics
Another important principle is to not put any topic off-limits. Our kids have questions about difficult topics, and they need to get answers from someone. We need to be sure that we don’t impose a penalty if they ask us those questions. Our children aren’t born automatically knowing why the Holocaust was evil or how to recognize racism or why sex at a young age can be damaging. We need to be prepared to discuss those topics without freaking out.
There’s no doubt that kids can throw us some serious curve balls. Even though I’m trained as a lawyer to examine all sorts of questions without getting emotional and have had all sorts of conversations with my kids, I still have to affirmatively monitor my reactions. The world keeps changing and giving our kids different ways to be confused about serious topics.
In fact, we shouldn’t wait for our kids to approach us with questions. Find time to ask them their thoughts about current events. Or, if you are feeling particularly brave, ask them what they are seeing on social media. They are getting a lot of information and forming a lot of opinions. The only way you’ll know what’s going on in your kids’ head is to ask them.
3. Consistently Require Respect
We need to be consistent in making clear that while no topic is off-limits, disrespectful behavior most certainly is. Of course, our kids don’t instinctively know what is respectful behavior and what is not, so we will have to frequently discuss with them where the dividing line is. We may have to role-play respectful ways to disagree with people.
We also need to encourage and model active listening. Paying attention to what someone says is an important form of respect. We will have to explain that concept to them and show them how it works. Being a good listener is not only important for their social skills, but it’s essential for finding common ground for discussions. We can’t really consider the opinions of others until we have heard what those opinions are.
4. Acknowledge the Other Person’s Views
Another important purpose of active listening is to know what the other person believes. All too often, people will create a caricature of people who disagree with them. Don’t let your kids rest on stereotypes. Memes can be fun on social media, but they are death knells for serious discussion.
Considering another person’s point of view is also one of the fundamental aspects of empathy. Relying on caricatures robs us of empathy, and makes it very hard to be respectful of others’ opinions. Active, empathetic listening is a valuable skill and essential foundation for respectful disagreement.
When you discuss topics with your kids, teach them that part of respectfully listening is to learn a true picture of what the other person believes. When your children tell you about disagreements, ask questions to help them think through the other person’s viewpoint. Even young children can learn to understand thoughts outside their own opinions. Understanding where an opponent is coming from is essential to respecting them even while disagreeing.
5. Help Our Kids Find A Vocabulary for Disagreement
Kids don’t instinctively know how to discuss controversial topics. They may not even understand what makes the difference between respectful language and hurtful words. Help them find words to express their disagreement respectfully. Role playing and a “script” can help them navigate difficult topics. Help them learn how to say, “That’s a good point, but my thoughts are different because . . . “ or even just “Well, I disagree because . . . .”
6. Teach Them How Not to Take It Personally
Disagreement almost always feels personal. Discussing controversial ideas, however, requires us to disengage our feelings and focus on the substance of the ideas. It’s a tough thing to do, even for adults. It will be particularly hard for kids who are already dealing with the feelings of trauma. We need to find opportunities to help them understand when and how to look past their emotions and focus on the facts involved.
7. Don’t Try to Fix It
In this area, as in so many others, we have to resist the temptation to fix the problem for our children. It’s easy to give them a simple answer, such as, “Their opinion doesn’t matter, anyway.” But the topics of disagreement are usually complicated, and simple answers rarely work. More important, our children need to find their own way to solve their problems. Our job is to help clarify the issues, discuss their questions, and encourage them to find workable solutions for difficult situations.
8. Be Willing to Change Your Mind
One of my mentors once said, “Experience tells me that sometimes I’m wrong. I don’t think this is one of those times, but I admit the remote possibility.” We may think that the odds of our being wrong on a particular topic are similar to the odds of being struck by lightning, but we have to keep an open mind about that possibility. We are never perfect, and whomever we disagree with very well could have the better argument.
Remembering that we could be wrong is particularly important when we’re disagreeing with our kids or other family members. We may have to admit that they are right, or at least have a good point. Being willing to be persuaded is an important trait to model for our kids. If we are never willing to change our minds, then our kids will rightly conclude that there is no point in trying to have a conversation.
9. Teach Coping Skills
There will be times when persuasion fails and other people won’t change their minds. Learning how to deal with disappointment is an important life skill for our children. They need to learn how to accept that another person will not change their mind, and do it without demonizing those other people.
Of course, this principle is easier said than done. Our kids will see adults all around them blaming other people for having rules, enforcing standards, or simply not doing enough to change things. First, we have to resist doing this ourselves. Then we have to help our kids turn disappointment into a positive lesson. Like I’ve discussed about failure, disappointment is an unavoidable way of learning. It’s hard and feels terrible, but we can learn from it. It can be a great opportunity, if a painful one, to change tacks or find different answers.
The principles for helping our kids deal with disappointment are very much like those for letting them learn from failure. We don’t try to fix it, we don’t try to compensate, and we remind them of our firm belief that they will get through this.
10. Encourage Them to Respectfully Hold True to What They Believe
Respectfully listening to and discussing ideas with others doesn’t mean that our children have to change their minds. They can be confident in what they believe.
It can be hard for kids, particularly those dealing with past trauma, to resist peer pressure. Not everyone they disagree with will give our children the respect that a legitimate difference of opinion deserves. For our kids, learning to be who they want to be, in spite of derogatory comments, is an extremely difficult but essential skill. It’s also not easy for our children (or most adults, for that matter) to know which beliefs they may need to change and which are immovable principles. A big part of our job is to help our children make that distinction and be comfortable with their core values.
Our children instinctively have lots of opinions, but they have to learn how to evaluate and discuss them. Calm discussion is a skill that our society needs more than ever, and our children need to learn how to fill that gap. Using these ten principles can help us teach our children how to discuss even controversial topics without insulting or demeaning people who disagree with them.