Teaching Young People to Argue Persuasively

There is a big difference between fighting and arguing, with the former having a negative connotation and the latter having a positive connotation. Fighting causes hard feelings and is non-productive, while arguing can be very beneficial for all concerned. The goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent. In an argument, you succeed when you either bring your audience over to your side or at least reach a better understanding of the views of each side. We need to teach kids to argue persuasively and effectively and reward them when they do it well.

In How to Teach a Child to Argue, Jay Heinrichs states that “rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.”

To disagree reasonably, a child must learn the three basic tools of argument: logos, ethos, and pathos. Examples of each are provided in Heinrichs’ article.
  • Logos is argument by logic.
  • Ethos is argument by character and employs the persuader’s personality, reputation, and ability to look trustworthy. A sterling reputation is more than just good; it’s persuasive. An adult is more likely to believe a trustworthy kid and to accept her argument.
  • Pathos is argument by emotion. It plays on one’s heartstrings. When a student learns to read your emotions and play them like an instrument, he is becoming a good persuader. 
Aristotle’s Guide to Dinner Table Discourse (according to Heinrichs)—or rules for teaching young people to argue effectively:
  • Argue to teach decision-making. When you argue the various sides of an issue with your kids (“Beach or mountains this summer?”), they are learning to present different options (“Both!”) and then decide which choice to follow.
  • Focus on the future. Arguments about the past (“Who made the mess with the toys?”) or the present (“Good children don’t leave messes.”) are far less productive than focusing on what to do or believe: “What’s a good way to make sure that toys get cleaned up?”
  • Call “fouls.” Anything that impedes debate counts as a foul: Shouting, storming out of the room, or recalling past family atrocities should instantly make you choose the opposite side.
  • Reward the right emotions. Respond to screaming and anger by not responding, except to say, “Oh, come on. You can do better than that.”
  • Let kids win sometimes. When they present a good argument, there’s no better teaching method than rewarding them. My overreliance on the slow cooker, for instance, made my son beg for “dry” food. “Even the cat’s meals,” he said, “aren’t all wet.” Good point. I served hamburgers next. Very dry hamburgers.

Some other guidelines for interacting with kids and teaching them to argue effectively include
  • Listen and verbally acknowledge that you have heard what the other person has said.
  • Take time to think. Don’t be afraid to say you’d like to think about a point for a while and respond later. This will give time to formulate an appropriate response.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s points that you agree with.
  • Stick with the main point and don’t get sidetracked.
  • Don’t let feelings fester. Bring up topics sooner rather than later.
  • Look for a win/win solution. 
When your student gets older, encourage her to join a debate club where the art of argument is fostered. According to IDEA (The International Debate Education Association), “...debate embodies the ideals of reasoned argument, tolerance for divergent points of view, and rigorous self-examination. Debate is, above all, a way for those who hold opposing views to discuss controversial issues without descending to insult, emotional appeals, or personal bias.”

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