How To Argue With Teens

NPR reports on interesting research on how to grow a kid’s spine and how to weaken it:

Teens should be rewarded when arguing calmly and persuasively and not when they indulge in yelling, whining, threats or insults, he says.

In Allen’s study, 157 13-year-olds were videotaped describing their biggest disagreement with their parents. The most common arguments were over grades, chores, money and friends. The tape was then played for both parent and teen.

“Parents reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of them laughed uncomfortably; some rolled their eyes; and a number of them dove right in and said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this,’” he says.

Allen interviewed the teens again at ages 15 and 16. “The teens who learned to be calm and confident and persuasive with their parents acted the same way when they were with their peers,” he says. They were able to confidently disagree, saying ‘no’ when offered alcohol or drugs. In fact, they were 40 percent more likely to say ‘no’ than kids who didn’t argue with their parents.

For other kids, it was an entirely different story. “They would back down right away,” says Allen, saying they felt it pointless to argue with their parents. This kind of passivity was taken directly into peer groups, where these teens were more likely to acquiesce when offered drugs or alcohol. “These were the teens we worried about,” he says.

Bottom line: Effective arguing acted as something of an inoculation against negative peer pressure. Kids who felt confident to express themselves to their parents also felt confident being honest with their friends.

This is a nice bit of confirmation of my view that patiently dialectical discussions are the best way to teach kids to think for themselves.

One more tidbit:

Child psychologist Richard Weissbourd says the findings bolster earlier research that finds that “parents who really respect their kids’ thinking and their kids’ input are much more likely to have kids who end up being independent thinkers and who are able to resist peer groups.”

Weissbourd points to one dramatic study that analyzed parental relationships of Dutch citizens who ended up protecting Jews during World War II. They were parents who encouraged independent thinking, even if it differed from their own.

Last month I wrote a post on the virtues and methods of freethinking parenting for any interested.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ischemgeek

    My thoughts come from the perspective of someone who’s not long out of my teens… I’ll say this: How my parents reacted to me challenging them depended heavily on how stressed they were and whether or not they’d been drinking. There were periods during my teens where my parents were (in my opinion) good parents who fostered independant thought… and there were others when they were emotionally abusive.

    From my perspective, when they talked it out with me, even if they eventually decided against me, I was heard, able to give my thoughts, and usually was able to have some input to make the final decision more palatable. Further, it gave me confidence that my thoughts were valuable, it taught me how to argue calmly and rationally, and it taught me when to compromise and when to stick to my guns.

    By contrast, when they started the conversation with mockery or screaming (I was a bit of the quiet-seether type so I usually wouldn’t start the screaming… I’d lock myself away until I calmed down and then go back to have a talk), or when they dismissed the idea that I might have an opinion, or when they dictated to me what I should think or feel, it taught me basically the opposite of everything I mentioned above: that might makes right, that bullying gets you what you want, that I don’t matter, and in some cases, that whether or not I’m innocent of what I’m being accused of doesn’t matter.

    I remember clearly how both approaches felt, and how they ended , and I know which I intend to use if I ever have kids.

  • CanadianSteve

    As a high school teacher I find this not surprising at all. The most capable students are always those able to think through a position, even if it’s wrong. This reflects a much higher level of thinking – analysis – than simply stating a belief or fact – recall.
    I suspect this is a nature-nuture blend. Parents that are more capable of this type of thinking are more likely to have kids with similar ability, and are also more likely to approach problems in this way.

  • colin hutton

    “patiently dialectical discussions are the best way to teach kids to think for themselves”. Uncontroversial (bordering on the self-evident), although not always easy to apply in practice!

    However I disagree that the research you point to provides any meaningful support for the above.

    The underlying logic, essential to the conclusions, appears to be as follows:

    Drugs (a loaded catch-all word) are a bad thing.
    No rational teenager would try drugs.
    The only reason a teenager would try drugs is peer pressure.

    How about the possibility that the 15/16yo kids who do think for themselves, have read-up on the subject (including Sam Harris!), assessed the risk/reward factors and rationally decided to try the experience of mind-altering substances. Conversely, those who refuse are unquestioningly accepting of authority (government, parents, minister etc.).

    In short, the ‘research’ is typical of much of the huge quantities of b.s. churned out by social ‘scientists’ – riddled with flaws (confirmation bias, confusion of cause/effect, begging the question, whatever) and actually meaningless.

    • ischemgeek

      I didn’t try drugs as a kid, for several reasons: 1) I had tried alcohol and learned that I don’t like it when my mind is altered (which is why I still don’t drink), 2) I had tried cigarettes and ended up in the ER for a life-threatening asthma attack and so didn’t want to take the risk with anything inhaled, 3) I had a crippling fear of needles, so something injected was completely out of the question, 4) I competed at a national level and was therefore subject to random drug tests. If I failed one, I could be kicked out of my sport, 5) they like to try teenagers as adults when it comes to drug offenses if they’re Good Kids, to make a point that being a Good Kid won’t shield you if you screw up… I didn’t want to walk around the rest of my life with a conviction hanging over my head.

      There were a few assorted other reasons, but none of my top 5 included “Mom and dad said it was bad” or “the teachers said it was bad.” For most of my peers who didn’t try drugs, their reasoning was usually something along the lines of not wanting to take the risk of ending up with a criminal conviction, not liking how legal drugs affected the mind and not wanting to try something harder, pre-existing mental or physical illness that drugs could worsen, and/or some extra-curricular that made them subject to drug tests. Just as not all kids who do drugs do so because of peer pressure (but some do – my sister did), not all kids who don’t do drugs do so because of parental/authority figure pressure.


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