How To Teach A Child Essay

1478 words - 6 pages

How to Teach a Child to Argue

How to Teach a Child to Argue

By Jay Heinrichs

Those of you who don't have perfect children will find this familiar: Just as I was withdrawing money in a bank lobby, my 5-year-old daughter chose to throw a temper tantrum, screaming and writhing on the floor while a couple of elderly ladies looked on in disgust. (Their children, apparently, had been perfect.) I gave Dorothy a disappointed look and said, "That argument won't work, sweetheart. It isn't pathetic enough."

She blinked a couple of times and picked herself up off the floor, pouting but quiet.

"What did you say to her?" one of the women asked.

I explained that "pathetic" was a term used in rhetoric, the ancient art of argument. I had happened across the subject one rainy day in a library and become instantly obsessed. As a result Dorothy had learned almost from birth that a good persuader doesn't merely express her own emotions; she manipulates her audience. Me, in other words.

Under my tutelage in the years that followed, Dorothy and her younger brother, George, became keenly, even alarmingly, persuasive. "Well, whatever it was," the woman said, "it certainly worked." Sure it did. I've worked hard at making my kids good at arguing. Absolutely.

Why on earth would any parent want that? Because persuasion is powerful. Rhetoric originated in the lawsuits of ancient Greece, when citizens who weren't good at persuading could lose their houses - or their lives. It was a staple of education until the early 1800s, teaching society's elite how to debate, make public decisions, and reach consensus. It probably explains how the founding fathers managed to carve a nation out of 13 squabbling colonies.

And let's face it: Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn't turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.

I had long equated arguing with fighting, but in rhetoric they are very different things. An argument is good; a fight is not. Whereas the goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent, in an argument you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side. A dispute over territory in the backseat of a car qualifies as an argument, for example, in the unlikely event that one child attempts to persuade his audience rather than slug it.

George, who took longer than Dorothy did to talk, was at first a devotee of what rhetoricians call argument by the stick. After every fight I'd ask him, "Did you get the other kid to agree with you?" For years he considered that a thoroughly stupid question, and maybe it was. But eventually this question made sense to him: In the world of...

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