Updated: Oct 29, 2020
In the ideal world, we teach to be nice. In the ideal real world, we teach to argue nicely!
"Stop fighting!" our three-year-old daughter yelled at us, from the back of the car, for what felt like the hundredth time that week.
"Sweetheart, daddy and I aren't fighting, we're discussing an important topic with passion," I explained, for the hundred-and-first time. "After all, you know mommy and daddy are both lawyers, so it's our job to argue. But that does not mean we are upset," I added. "We like to talk like this!" And that was the truth. Although we sometimes bicker like any married couple, we were happily discussing politics -- in fact, we were in agreement about what we were discussing -- and yet our tones of voice unsettled our toddler. She didn't seem convinced.
One of the great blessings of children is that they remind us of innocence, both what it is and why it's important. And lately, my daughter's innocent sensitivity to our tones of voice has made me reflect on my role in teaching my kids how to discuss important topics with gentleness and humility -- and how it will prepare them to engage as citizens as they grow older. This is a critical skill for when they will inevitably find themselves in disagreement with another. It goes without saying that our standards for civil discourse have fallen to new lows lately, and that we have to teach them the art of de-escalating conflict carefully.
Like everything involving children, learning about conflict starts with what we do at home. Here are a few "principles of arguing nicely" my husband and I try to model and impart to our kids:
1.) Believe the other person does not mean to do you any harm, absent contrary evidence. If your sister ran by and knocked you over, assume it was an accident, unless you have a real reason to believe it was malicious. One way to escalate a fight is by jumping to the conclusion that your opponent is out to get you. Looking at their actions with charity instead can go a long way to de-escalating a conflict.
What this might sound like, when talking to kids: "Do you think she meant to hurt your feelings? Why?" / "Do you think it could have been an accident? Have you ever accidentally hurt someone?"
2.) When arguing, focus on the specific topic, not broader and general issues. If your sister stole your Lego out of your hand, you should try to correct specifically that wrong, not begin to drag in the litany of unrelated complaints against your sister, such as her tendency to whine and not put away her clothes. When small conflicts tend to grow into larger ones, you know it's time for a sit-down to hash out any unredressed harms that have been stewing--but that type of big discussion isn't meant for the heat of the moment.
What this might sound like, when talking to kids: "We can talk about that other thing later. Right now, let's focus on what just happened." / "It sounds like there are some other things you're upset about. I promise we'll talk about those once we've had a chance to talk about the issue right now, which is that she took your Lego."
3.) Walk away until you have a chance to cool down. This rule is big in our household. Sometimes, our emotions just get the better of us, and it's hard to have a level head. That's when it's time to retreat for some "alone time" to "calm down," so we can come back and discuss things more objectively and without jumping to conclusions.
What this might sound like, when talking to kids: "I think you're too angry to discuss this right now. Let's all take a break, have some quiet time, and calm down." / "Why don't you let me give you a hug while you finish crying, and then we can discuss this when you can speak clearly?" / To supplement your words, Calm-Down Time from Toddler Tools book series does a great job of explaining this practice!
That's it--nothing groundbreaking in our house--but can you imagine if Americans in public life abided by these simple principles? I feel sure it would create a whole different environment for our youngsters. As parents, let's not underestimate the power of these simple rules of engagement that we can model in the lives of our children. After all, as my three-year-old has taught me, kids pick up on much more than we realize!