How to Teach Your Kids to be Disagreeable


Girls sitting around a table brainstorming ideas

No More Middle-Ground…

There seems to be a lost art in our culture in recent years – the skill of being disagreeable, without being rude, condescending, or hurtful. It’s difficult to watch the “news” or peruse social media anymore without hearing raised voices, people speaking over one another, and an emphasis on name-calling or personal attacks. Meanwhile, the substance of the disagreement is nowhere to be found. Our children frequently see an exaggerated, distorted view of what disagreement is from the adults around them and on our screens.

We all want our kids to be the nice kids, to be liked, and to be considered friendly. We crack down on cyberbullying, and the myriad other ways kids can get in trouble online – but are we doing enough to teach them how to have strong relationships and associations that can withstand conflict, differences, and substantive disagreement?

Let’s all go back to Kindergarten…

Just like the poster said, all we needed to know we really learned in Kindergarten. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Clean up your own mess. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. The challenge before us is that we need to change the image of disagreement, both for ourselves and our children. We need a PR campaign that aims to return intelligent and thoughtful debate of ideas and perspectives to our news media, our classrooms, and our homes. And we need it now.

Where to start…

Without really thinking about it, here’s what I have started emphasizing with my girls:

1. Point Out and Label Ineffective Communication

I started pointing out the about absurdity of the media pundits, who show their split-screen views of the “guests” and host all speaking over each other at one time. How is anyone heard? What actual fact have you heard in the last 30 seconds? Is anyone actually getting anywhere? Is anyone being persuaded of anything or changing their point of view at all?

2. Talk About the Subject, Not the Person

My kids know that it is okay to disagree with someone’s idea. It is not okay to call someone a name, label them, or place them in a group. The test is – do the words I am about to use directly strengthen my argument? If not, they’re probably irrelevant and not productive.

3. Think Outside the Box

Don’t be so quick to give in, or to give up. One of the simplest examples my colleagues and I were told in mediator training was the story of the orange. A couple was divorcing, their sole asset was an orange. They both want the orange. What room does the mediator have to get enough movement to keep the case out of litigation? Seems pretty bleak, right? The path to the solution starts with one action, and one word. Action – really, and truly hear the person who is speaking. Word – “Why?”

These two simple things are the crux of every mediation I handle. Even if what you are hearing sounds horrifying, keep listening, information about a person’s perspective is always helpful. Then, if you truly don’t understand someone’s position (more on that below), then simply ask “why?” Then shut up. And listen again.

4. Focus on the “Why”

Don’t take a position, speak about your interests. In the example above, both Husband and Wife have taken a position – they want the orange. The mediator’s path out of this certain impasse is to brainstorm and see if there are more options than the one the parties have presented (they get the orange). By asking “why” the mediator is really asking about their interest – why do they want the orange, what are they going to do with it, what is important to them about the orange?

When the mediator focuses on the parties’ interests, the mediator learns Husband is deficient in vitamin C and needs the juice; while Wife is a chef who needs the orange zest for her latest recipe. The mediator can now problem-solve for other solutions. They may not be perfect solutions for both parties, but they are better than their current situation. Here, the orange gets carefully skinned, rind goes to Wife and orange innards to Husband.

5. Have Some Grit and Graciousness

Healthy boundaries are necessary. As a nation, I think it is time for us to embrace the fact that the only way to move forward is to start difficult conversations, conversations that cover sensitive topics and include all interested parties. We need to teach our children to do the hard work of having these conversations.

I recently attended a panel discussion on diversity. One of the panelists said that while she considers the topic very important, there are times when having to explain your perspective over and over is exhausting. And there are times she just doesn’t feel up to it. I hadn’t thought of that before, I never considered how tiring that would be. I felt empathy, and sadness for the fact that she was right – but I also thought “what choice do we have?” Like most things in life – the good stuff is hard.

Resolving the most important issues we face will take many conversations that are difficult. And we will need to have them over and over again. It isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, but it is what is necessary. We need to teach our kids to have the grit necessary to engage in and continue these conversations. Teaching them to have healthy boundaries means teaching them to have these discussions when they aren’t exhausted or stressed; taking thoughtful time-outs; and letting them know it is ok to end a conversation when the other person won’t refrain from personal attacks or name-calling. Nothing gets accomplished in that situation, and we need to teach our children how to end a conversation with integrity and dignity.

Don’t assume, and forgive quickly…

I am trying to teach my girls not to take themselves too seriously, and to have a sense of humor about themselves, their thoughts, and their perceptions. They are learning not to take a statement personally until they have clarified what the speaker intended. We all misspeak, it is easy to pop off and assume someone meant to offend us. And sometimes, we are going to say something that offends others. Imagine what could happen if we taught our children to be quick to apologize and forgive one another for our mistakes, misperceptions, and miscommunications – as we all make them. For more tips on teaching our kids how to have tough conversations check out these 7 strategies: