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Are Adult Arguments Hurting Our Children's Learning?

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Fighting Kids

“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 person cuts off another, that person gets to retell what they started.

Use a talking stick. It worked in our U.S. Congress to end the three-day government shutdown in January! That’s right, a U.S. Senator (and an educator) recently introduced a talking stick so that individuals could be heard. So grab a fairy wand or construct a tinker toy and transform it into a sacred device that if held, gives the holder the power to be heard. If you have a problem that impacts the whole family, hold a family meeting and use the talking stick to see if you can work together toward a solution.

Really listen. This may sound easy, but really listening requires patience. Instead of quickly responding to your kids immediately, try summarizing what you think they said. And don’t forget the sub-text, or what you think they might be feeling. This helps a child feel understood and builds their emotional vocabulary. It also ensures we have truly heard them. It will be worth it when you notice your child learning this skill from you!

Set a goal. When you anticipate arguments, set a goal for how you’ll address the issue as a family. How will we all try to understand the issue? How we will learn more? How we keep other perspectives in mind?

Focus on mindset. When debates come up, or questions are raised, research the issues together. When your daughter asks where your water comes from, don’t just give a quick answer. Look it up and explore. In the rush of our busy lives, adults can train themselves out of a learning mindset though we are all hard-wired for learning. Start following your child’s leading questions and you’ll practice pursuing curiosities and perhaps, be amazed at how informed you’ll become together.

Own your blame. Statements like, “You never take out the trash,” can make anyone feel defensive. But instead of having that gut reaction, try to minimize “You,” or finger-pointing comments by owning your part in any problem. “I” statements can help you take responsibility. “I feel frustrated when I take out the trash because I want to share household chores.” You can model and practice responsibility in any situation. But when family members begin with blame, how can you reframe it? You may need to pause and breathe. Calm down first before responding. Take a break to formulate a response that is constructive and not defensive. After breathing, you might say, “That’s hard to hear since I do my best to contribute to our house. How can we work together on a plan so that you feel like I am contributing?” Inviting collaboration resets a goal for the conversation so that you both focus on arguing to learn.

Fight fair. How we argue can make all the difference. It can strengthen our trust and deepen our connections or it can create division and whittle away at our relationships. And if there is one place where we are our most vulnerable, it’s with our families. So why not talk about how fights take place - what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable? Talk about and sign the Fighting Fair Family Pledge to establish clear boundaries with your family.

Some of our world’s most important innovators have relied on arguing to learn. Arguing to win most often ends in a dead end, in which the winner only gains bragging rights and no more. Whereas in arguing to learn, both sides connect and build a greater understanding of the issue at hand, more than either began with. When considering our children’s happiness and emotional well-being, it is their connections with and contributions to others that bring their lives meaning. It’s well worth our time, thought and effort to model and practice arguing to learn.


Fisher, M., Knobe, J., Strickland, B., & Keil, F. C. (2018). The Tribalism of Truth. Scientific American; 2, 50-53.

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