Practicing Parents / Practicing with Children

Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable

by David Grummon

So let’s leave it alone ‘cause we don’t see eye to eye
There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy
There’s only you and me and we just disagree
-Dave Mason, 1977

So I wanted to write a piece on teaching kids how to disagree without being disagreeable.

That is what I wanted to do.

I wanted to write a piece on teaching kids how to disagree without being disagreeable, because I find myself raising my kids in a world which feels increasingly disagreeable. No, that’s not the word I’m looking for. Hostile, maybe? Polarized, for sure. I want to say crazy or insane, but those words get slung as insults back and forth these days with carelessness and malicious intent. I doubt I need to explain more. Odds are, you’ve already read countless articles and essays about the demise of civility in the public square, the increasing coarseness of our society, thought bubbles and echo-chambers and geographic self-segregation along political lines. Religion and theology loom large in the so-called “culture wars,” and identity politics is steadily creeping into popular theology.

I wanted to write a piece on teaching kids how to disagree without being disagreeable, but even as I write these words, my smartphone is blowing up with news notifications of protests and counter-protests, people marching in the streets with torches and white robes and someone ramming a car into a crowd. Things feel bleak. I feel stressed and overwhelmed. How can I possibly teach my kids—much less advise others—about a concept which so many adults have apparently failed to master?

For example, last year I was asked to be part of a church committee with the unenviable task of guiding our American Baptist congregation through a controversial topic which threatens to be divisive, and indeed has divided many congregations and even denominations. Recently, as part of this work and based on the impassioned feedback our committee received from both sides of the topic, I found myself having to write an explanation of the most Baptist of Baptist traditions, the “priesthood of every believer.” This idea—basically that each believer is responsible for discerning God’s will based on prayer and the study of scripture—is not something I should have to explain to Baptists, yet I absolutely needed to explain it. This was followed by writing an explanation of how each member of our congregation has covenanted “to demonstrate our Christian love to others, both within and outside [our church] community,” including, I added, our pastors and staff. This idea—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is not something I should have to explain to Christians (least of all regarding treatment of pastors and staff), yet I absolutely needed to explain it.

Merely quoting scripture and doctrine, however, is not going to cut it for teaching kids. And I completely do not feel up to the task, because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to choose my words carefully and show love to some of the people I disagree with. I am acutely aware of how easy—and how dangerous—it is to cry “a pox on both your houses!” Sometimes the reality is that both sides are not morally equivalent, and just reactively bemoaning that there is “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” is a copout, if not a complete moral failure, especially with my kids. I am not okay with Klansmen feeling encouraged to march in the streets. When discrimination against my kids’ uncles is being written into policy and law, I can’t say that’s right. And when refugees and immigrants are being scapegoated and mistreated, I have to speak up because the Bible is chalked full of commandments to treat refugees and immigrants with kindness and equality.

I don’t want to be part of normalizing language and behavior that shouldn’t be normalized, but I still need to teach my kids how to take a stand without dehumanizing or vilifying people who disagree with them. Sometimes, those who disagree with us will be family members. Sometimes they will be church members. Sometimes they will be classmates, neighbors, public officials or people who truly feel justified in their sense of grievance, even when that grievance seems completely unjustified to us.

So, for lack of any better self-inspired wisdom, I will once again crib from the book 20 Teachable Virtues: Practical Ways to Pass on Lessons of Virtue and Character to Your Children by Barbara C. Unell and Jerry L. Wyckoff, Ph.D. The book walks through all kinds of virtues that are lacking these days, such as Empathy, Tolerance, Courtesy, Patience, and Peacemaking, and lays out “teaching tools” for each one. After about the first 10 virtues, you start to see a pattern:

Model the virtue you want to teach:
Just as kids will copy examples of smoking, violence, substance abuse or other bad behavior they witness in their parents, when put to the test themselves, they will generally copy good behavior they repeatedly observed in their parents. So in this case, if I want my kids to treat everyone with kindness and respect, then I had better make sure that I treat every person with kindness and respect—even (and perhaps especially) when that person is rather difficult. Nor can I pull this off if I only think of doing it when I’m in front of the kids. I have to figure out how to do this all the time and in all occasions—even when it’s difficult.

Teach the mechanics of the virtue you want to teach:
The younger kids are, the harder it is for them to take an abstract idea (like “every human has intrinsic value”) and apply it to their everyday behavior. So for our kids, teaching courtesy may mean spelling out the courteous language I want them to use when asking something from a stranger, or writing out what to say when answering the phone. This may mean not just yelling or sending a kid to timeout when some confrontation during playtime goes sideways, but sitting back down and talking with both siblings about what happened, helping them reexamine what happened as if they were looking in on someone else’s argument, or even roleplaying to relearn a different reaction to whatever happened that caused things to melt down.

Mediate TV:
Wait, does anyone reading this actually watch live TV anymore? This teaching tool really should encompass all forms of media and content delivery—smartphones, tablets, and wherever else kids get their audio/visual fix. I realized just how powerful media influence was when my kids started reenacting a Sonic commercial they saw (repeatedly) during the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It was cute—the first 10 times they did it. I realized just how dangerous media influence was when I saw a commercial during the Superbowl that humorously portrayed a child slapping an adult who had taken a corn chip without asking. Not that cute. So for now, we limit media viewing to PBS Kids, DVDs from the library and certain series on Netflix. We’re not watching much of the news these days either. They’re pretty sheltered—for now. I don’t envy parents of older kids and teenagers—those who already have devices delivering an unlimited stream of information, opinions, provocations, anxieties, and yeah, craziness at all hours of the day. We’re in no rush to get there, but eventually we will not be able to insulate them entirely from the torrent of negativity and vitriol being bandied about as virtues.

There is so much these days that is out of my control as a human being, much less as a parent. But I can do those things that I can do. I can work with others to advocate for a better future for all, without demonizing and dehumanizing others. I can try and teach my kids how to disagree without being disagreeable, even if it’s hard and even if I make mistakes. And I can pray for God’s help in both endeavors.

Pray with me. Lord knows, we need all the help we can get.

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