Don’t Argue With Me

by Kelly Bartlett on April 27, 2011

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Here’s something that happens a lot: I say something.  My child (I’m thinking particularly of my 4-year-old) argues the opposite.  He’s not at all correct.  In fact, he’s so not correct, his statement doesn’t make any logical sense at all.

  • Mom, this is how you spell “people”: p-e-p-l.  Oh, close…there are a few more letters in there. No, that’s how you spell it.
  • JJ, it’s time to be done with computer games. You never let me play computer!
  • Mom, what did we have for breakfast today?  We had eggs. No, we didn’t! We had muffins.  Actually, we had eggs today. We had muffins yesterday. No!

Where do I go from there?  There are so many potential back-and-forths to be had with these kinds of statements.  Do I bother?  What are my choices for how to respond to ridiculous arguments?   As I see it, I could:

Retort Back. I could issue the classic, “Don’t argue with me” statement.  Many parents don’t like the feeling of being talked back to or argued with.  It undermines their authority, and negates the message that they are “right.”

I think arguing is actually a valuable skill to have.  I want my kids to be able to disagree and feel confident enough to share their thoughts.  This will lead to standing up for themselves during tough moments or speaking up for others when it matters.

I also don’t want to send the message to my kids that they must be seen and not heard, or that different thoughts equal wrong thoughts.  Sure, sometimes they might be wrong (the correct spelling of the word “people” is pretty indisputable), but there’s a difference in shutting down a child’s voice with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude, and listening to their different–and, yes, maybe even wrong–thoughts with acceptance.  It sets the stage for learning healthy debate skills and an open approach to communication.  Though there are many times I’d like to respond to  my kids with “Don’t argue with me,” I know that arguing is essentially good for them.  It is helpful for kids to be able to disagree with authority figures in a safe environment and hone their Stick-Up-For-Myself skills.

Argue With Him. This is probably the most instinctual.  When opposed, I can always come up with lots of excellent examples that really make my case.  It’s only too easy to argue with my child over how much time he actually does get to spend on the computer, or how many muffins we don’t have in the pantry because we ate them…yesterday.  But why do I feel the need to prove my point to a 4-year-old?  And what will it truly result in?

  • No, it was eggs today.  Remember I asked you if you wanted scrambled eggs? No.  And you said yes, and I asked you if you wanted them with cheese or no cheese? No.  And you said with cheese, so we had cheesy eggs today. No! I didn’t say that!
  • Of course I let you play computer! What have you been doing this morning? You played it yesterday too, and every day. You get plenty of computer time. No I don’t! I don’t get to play it hardly ever!

Perpetuating the argument only results in my son continuing to assert that he is right, now more loudly and with more emotion, because his autonomy is being threatened. Arguing with a child becomes less about the issue at hand and more about asserting control. One of us has to be a grown-up and disengage in this kind of pointless power struggle.  Oh, right, that would be me…the grown-up.

Let it Go. Say, “OK.”  Moving on.  Because really, what does it matter?  If my son mistakenly thinks we had muffins instead of eggs for breakfast, who does that hurt?  How important is it for me to push the issue, and what will it cost our connection to do so?  I’d rather agree to disagree about breakfast than put distance in our relationship.

Hear Him Out. Give him a chance to explain his seemingly ridiculous argument.  “Oh?”  “Is that what you think?”  “What makes you say that?”  “Tell me more.”  “Ah, I see…”  Asking these types of curiosity questions shows my child that I’m interested in what he has to say, even if I disagree.  They also shift the conversation from confrontational to communicative.  It tells him, “We see things differently, but I am interested in hearing you.  I will listen, and you can help me understand.”

Listen to What He’s Really Trying to Say. Why do kids adamantly say things like “you always…” and “you never…”?  Well, it’s based on the way the child feels at the time the statement is made. “You never…” and “You always…” indicate that he has strong feelings about that situation.  “You never let me play computer” translates to, “I love playing computer and I’M SO ANGRY that I can’t play right now!”  But of course, a 4-year-old’s brain isn’t capable of articulating that.  Rather than try to prove my point with arguments and examples, I can simply acknowledge my child’s side of the argument and the feelings that are bringing it to light.

An argument with a child is rarely about the topic at hand.  The verbal intensity and seeming lack of logic are brought on by the feelings underlying a child’s belligerence.  So, for me and my argumentative 4-year-old, I could choose to ignore those feelings and assert my authority (focus on proving that I am right), or I could decide how important it really is that I “win” and respond to him with sensitivity.  I can listen with acceptance and remind myself of his current stage of emotional, cognitive, and linguistic development.  I can understand that the situation is not that he’s not listening to me; it’s that he’s not able to process information as I am.  As any adult is.  Because he’s four.  But he won’t be four forever, and regardless of how obscure his perspective may seem right now, I can certainly make an effort to listen…for the future of our relationship and communication.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Connor April 27, 2011 at 8:12 am

Ugh! Total parent/child argument FAIL! I wish I had read this this morning. Thank you for the well written article and reminder.
Connor

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Courtney April 27, 2011 at 9:16 am

Hi, thought I would drop you a line and suggest you read Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) By Dr. Thomas Gordon, or find a class for this – incase you haven’t already.
And thankyou, I really enjoyed this blog.

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audrey April 27, 2011 at 10:13 am

I love this post. As a preschool teacher I encounter situations like this from time to time (my son is still too young for such retorts).

Another possibility to add (and usually applies to the 2-3 years set but sometimes 4 and up too) is the child trying out their “separate-ness.” Children begin to understand that they are distinct people from their caregivers (especially parents) and will sometimes say contrary things to distinguish themselves for the sake of distinguishing themselves.

It is helpful to recognize especially when they seem to be in the “no” means “yes” stage where no actually means something more like, “I am distinct from you and trying out my capability to come up with unique decisions. Let me think about it.”

I really love your last approach, “listen to what he’s really saying.” I believe there is a healthy impulse behind all young children’s actions and it is really important to step back and identify what it could be before addressing the situation.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see. Someone once asked me the example, “what about the child whining for candy? How is there a healthy impulse?” It could be easy to say, “well, no. Eating candy and whining aren’t healthy things.” But if you stop to consider it its not so black and white.

In nature many things that are good for us are sweet. Also, in our culture things like candy are often used in fun celebratory ways. So I would talk with the child to see if either of those things are applying: do they just want something sweet? Why? Maybe they could come up with an alternative that’s better for their body? (and here’s the opportunity to talk with them about why you don’t think candy is the best choice in that moment and how you talk about this is based entirely on your values or that of your school, class, teacher etc) An apple? Or maybe they just need to do something fun or need a little extra attention (the celebration aspect of candy)?

Got a little wordy, I’m just passionate about preschoolers, I think they can be such creative problem solvers. And I’m very happy to have found your blog!

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kyle June 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Maybe the child also has a natural drive to learn how you argue by arguing. The child could learn things like when to give in, when to get personal,or how you escalate in words and voice.

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