Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Feminist parenting: arguing with your kids

Happy New Year, y'all.

As you may remember, I have a thing against making New Year's Resolutions, but I was sorta thinking that I should try to crank out one real post a week in 2012. We'll see how that goes.

So here's something I've been thinking about:

Over at the NPR blogs there's a piece about how kids who are in the habit of arguing in a productive way with their parents are better at resisting peer pressure. It's definitely worth a read.

Of course this isn't surprising to me. I think having good arguing skills (of the non-flaming, non-drama-queen type) is a basic life skill that will benefit you in many areas of your life. On the other hand, I can definitely see that raising kids who think they have a voice and who will argue (respectfully) with you is more work than just reverting to the classic because-I-said-so style of parenting. But I think it's integral to their developing sense of autonomy, and their critical thinking skills in general, so it seems worth it.

I've also been thinking about the value of being good at arguing with the people in your life in a productive way in another context. I have this friend who is incredible in many ways. He's smart and funny and artistically talented and witty and thoughtful and super fun to be around. But... from time to time he does this thing where he allows some small conflict with someone in his life to build up to the point where he just suddenly goes off on them (usually in email form) and says terribly hurtful things, completely ending his friendship with them, leaving no room for backtracking or starting over or mending fences. There's no room for dialogue, and the hurtful things that have been said can't be taken back. It's a complete burning bridges approach that's puzzling to me given this guy's social skills in general. To say the least, this has cost him pretty big over the course of his adult life, and caused a great deal of turmoil and hurt feelings among our friends.

When my great-grandma (the one with 13 kids) was in her 90s, someone asked her what the secret to a good marriage was. She said "knowing when to shut up." There is a lot of truth to this, I think, but in some cases, knowing when to address conflict before it becomes a blowing-up-and-burning-bridges scenario is more important. My dad has said a few times before: the most important relationship skill is knowing how to argue without saying things you can't take back, and without tearing down the person with whom you disagree. I would add that not discussing things when you're too worked up emotionally is probably a good skill to develop too.

So how do you teach your kids how to do this? I suppose by modeling the skills on a daily basis. By engaging in productive arguments that focus on the activities or events in question rather than making personal attacks or engaging in emotional blackmail. By not rewarding drama queen behavior, but being willing to compromise when kids stake out a reasonable position in a calm and persuasive way.

As far as I can tell, this is a crucial part of feminist parenting.

Anyone wanna argue with me about that?


  1. Haylee1/11/2012

    No. I'm sure you'll kick my ass. ;-)

    The problem is, I think some teens argue just for the sake of arguing. (I'm mostly thinking about my nephew here.) I wouldn't reward that kind of behavior, but other than that I agree with you.

    Happy New Year to you!

  2. lunchlady1/11/2012

    I think this is basically right - a kind of built in assertiveness training. I often think kids (especially girls) need reinforcement from adults that being assertive is not the same as being mean or bitchy. Somehow those two are often confused.

  3. Haylee,

    I agree that some teens argue just to be contrary. On the other hand, maybe being contrary is such a bad thing. =)


    That's exactly what it is - assertiveness training. Respectful assertiveness. Now that's valuable.

  4. I think your friend suffers from this cultural illusion that in a perfect marriage or friendship there's no conflict ever. Like some parents think it's bad to ever argue in front of their kids, so instead they get all passive-aggressive.

  5. Anonymous1/18/2012

    Well, I think there are times when you have to enforce rules no matter how hard your kid is arguing against them. But being able to stand your ground is a good skill. But what about all that research that shows that the parts of your brain that would help you resist peer pressure aren't fully formed until your mid 20s? That's still a problem.

  6. That's an interesting point, anonymous. I've heard about that but haven't read up on it. So maybe the goal is to make them more able to stand their ground, while acknowledging that peer pressure will still be a significant factor.