Are Adult Arguments Hurting Our Children's Learning?
Jennifer Miller | Mar 5, 2018
“Recess is no fun anymore!” my ten-year-old son laments after school. I listened, surprised, knowing that recess is an essential time to get fresh air and stretch those muscles that have been atrophying in desk chairs all morning. “How come?” I ask. “We always play football,” responds my son, “and everyone argues and then no one plays anymore. We just walk away.” “What do they argue about?” I ask. “Everything!” says my son. “Who gets the ball. Who lost the ball. Who scored points.”
Even though it’s disappointing to hear from my son, it’s not surprising. We watch competitive arguing, or arguing to win, in our national political debates and on social media. So our kids see examples everywhere for entering conversations with the sole intent to win.
But are these examples doing a disservice to our kids? Are they setting them up for difficulties in school and in their relationships? After all, when you argue to win, you’re not open to other perspectives. The game just ends. In fact, researchers have found that when people enter a conversation with the intent to win, it changes the very question they began with. Instead of viewing the “Who gets the ball?” question as subjective, the game can’t even start because the two teams can’t agree on who gets the ball first.
After each side states their non-negotiable stance, then where do you go from there? In my son’s case with his schoolmates, nowhere.
But not all arguing is bad. There is another type of arguing that can actually build relationships and learning. It’s called “arguing to learn.” Take the football debate, for example. What if kids were told in advance that they needed to work together to develop the rules of recess football? What if even though they are playing on opposing teams, they’re told they have to work as one big team if they want to play recess football at all? Do you think they might work together to try to figure out “Who gets the ball?” versus getting frustrated and giving up? Cognitive science researchers say “Yes.” When people are given a cooperative goal for a conversation from the outset, they tend to listen to one another, to build on each others’ perspectives and to seek common ground.
So, how can we teach our kids to “argue to learn” rather than “argue to win”?
Let them play! Unstructured play is the greatest opportunity for kids to practice and build cooperation, flexibility, communication, and negotiation. So set boundaries like, friends are more important than screens. When friends come to play, screens get turned off. After all, there’s plenty of time when friends are not around for screen time.
Stop interruptions. Let’s face it, if someone interrupts you to share their opinion, they weren’t listening to a word you were saying. Instead, they were busy formulating their argument. Families can get into a bad habit of speaking this way to one another. So break the habit. Agree together that anytime one