Entering the Debate:

Teaching kids that disagreement is healthy

When we changed schools this year, I had hoped my kids would become more active in extracurricular activities. Arthur, in particular, is a bit of an introvert, and I really want him to get out there and start engaging with people outside of our family. He has been in robotics and chess club in the past, and I had hoped he would do something with a little more interaction with other kids in his sixth-grade year.

The first week of school, I asked him if he wanted to play an instrument in the school band. “No way,” he groaned, barely holding back his distaste. “Not in school with everyone else.”

“What about chorus? You’re a really good singer,” I told him.

“Mom, no! With everyone watching and you’re onstage? Ew, no way.”

A couple of weeks later while I was picking him up from school, his teacher passively mentioned in front of me, “I still think you should have taken that debate club flyer.”

As a woman who has built her career on communication and discourse, my ears perked up. When we got home, I asked him what she was talking about and why he didn’t take one. His reply was that it just sounded like it was a bunch of talking about school issues.

“Whoa! Hold the phone, bro!” I exclaimed excitedly, launching immediately into a pitch about how intellectual debate is the foundation of democracy and necessary for a free society, and that understanding the fundamentals of logical discourse is a cornerstone of critical thinking. I talked about how in debate club you might learn about an issue and then argue that issue even if it’s not something you personally agree with so you can learn about challenging your conclusions and the way you arrive at them, and then I gave a few examples of logical fallacies.

He was into it, and a few weeks in, he’s completely excited about debate. And his dad and I are excited because we believe that healthy argument really is fundamental to a free society.

My Own Introduction to Debate

I first learned about critical discourse in high school. My last two years of high school, I went to a small private school because I had been failing, of all things, high school English at East Central. For perspective, the K through 12 school was so small that my graduating class was the largest it had seen in years with 16 graduates.

One of the required classes was Bible. I credit this class with teaching me both literature analysis and rhetorical analysis due to one specific exercise from that class which dealt with textual analysis of the Bible. We would be assigned a theological issue that was up for debate among various Protestant faiths and then use a concordance to dig deeper into a Bible verse. We were supposed to study the cultural context of the original text then and now and strive to understand how it could be interpreted differently.

This was a particularly enlightening exercise because most of the students in my school were Protestants from different faith backgrounds. I was a Southern Baptist, but many of the other students were Pentecostal, Assembly of God, or Nazarene.

I was already a student who took detailed sermon notes and annotated my Bible, so I deeply enjoyed these exercises and adopted the close reading practice in the other books I read during that time like The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Brave New World.

Once we had researched the text, we outlined our debate points with our teammates. Using Biblical text, we would argue on an issue like whether baptism was necessary for salvation. After we had argued one side, we would then switch sides and argue the opposing view. This exercise was so foundational in my understanding of language and debate that I credit it as being one of the most formative experiences of my adolescence, and in many ways I believe it helped to completely shape my worldview today.

Through this experience, I learned:

  • Language is complex and must be analyzed and evaluated for both the authors’ meaning and the readers’ understanding.
  • Text can be interpreted many ways.
  • The correctness of a conclusion can have little to do with whether or not an argument is flawed.
  • People can learn from their disagreements with each other without making it personal.

A few years later, I saw these same themes emerge in another unlikely place: South Park. Many of the episodes follow a simple format. Two sides of a trending issue are presented and lampooned or satirized in some way, and the most extreme versions of those viewpoints are shown. For example, the episode might be about gun control, and one group of South Parkians end up rounding up all of the guns while the others are arming themselves to the teeth, the purpose being to highlight how extreme they can get. At the end, one of the kids, usually Stan or Kyle, will offer a speech that goes something like:

“I learned something today. You can be right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right reasons.”

Like it or hate it, the point of South Park is to often call into question anyone who clings to an extreme idea without considering the flaws in their own thinking.

Embracing Discourse

When I taught Freshman Composition, I taught it like a true believer in healthy discourse. I knew for many people, this would be the only chance they would have to understand how to analyze a text or question a source. I tried to spend as much time on logical fallacies as I could, and I tried to bring in examples from conservative and liberal arguments, often on the same topic, to demonstrate them.

That was back when we all had flip phones and we didn’t all have a decade of Facebook in the rearview mirror. But the world has changed fundamentally in so many ways since then. It’s hard to go on any social media site and not see a debate happening somewhere, and that’s okay.

Since that high school Bible class, I have always loved debate. Through engaging in discourse with others, I have completely challenged my own beliefs about any number of topics, questioning and analyzing issues, arriving at different conclusions.

But lately, I’ve been worried about how we approach debate as a culture in the wake of social media. Everything is personal, and people unfriend each other for disagreeing over politics or religion. An unfriending in the digital world is usually an unfriending in real life, too.

My mom used to say something that probably plenty of my readers have heard, that you just don’t discuss politics or religion with people outside of your family. But in the Digital Age, that seems naive at best.

Starting at Home

As parents, Justin and I have made a very conscious effort to be cautious about not indoctrinating the kids to anything we believe as the only right way of seeing things. When the kids comment that someone believes differently than they do about something, we try to reinforce the positivity of difference with something like, “That’s awesome! I love that your friends are different from you!” or “Oh, you should ask if you can learn more about that.”

The world around us might be going down in an apocalyptic digital flame war, but I can’t bear the thought of my kids thinking they’re being attacked because someone presents them with an opposing viewpoint. How will they ever question anything they think or evolve their perspectives?

We try to model this in our own arguments with each other. I know couples who claim to never have argued, and I believe them. But I must admit that I can’t wrap my head around it.

Justin and I disagree constantly, and it’s part of how we communicate. I don’t want him to tell me I’m right to keep the peace, and I know he doesn’t want that from me, either.

But as much as we argue with each other, we are very rarely angry with each other, and when we are, it’s always momentary. Both of us have a worldview that doesn’t see disagreement as a character assault or offense. And a person who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong free of judgment or animosity is a powerful ally.

As we teach our kids that debate is healthy, here are a few things we want them to learn:

  1. Engaging with others who see the world differently from us is part of how we learn.
  2. Responding with an insult is not going to help anything and it’s not cool.
  3. If someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they’re offended by you.
  4. If someone disagrees with you, that’s not the same as attacking you.
  5. If you say or post it publicly, be willing to stand behind what you said.
  6. You can be right in your conclusions and have bad logic.
  7. You can have great logic and draw a terrible conclusion.
  8. Do not ever be afraid to speak up if something seems unjust.
  9. Be willing to concede a point.
  10. Be willing to change your mind.

How do you teach your kids to interact with people who think differently? Do you have any tips for me? Leave me a comment below with your insights because I love them.

Thanks for reading, dear readers, and have a beautiful week!


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