Ask parents how they feel about their adolescent arguing with them and many will say they could get by with less or even be content with none. They find adolescent argument pointless, irritating, and exhausting.
It leads to frustrating delays in getting the young person to do what they want by having to wait for an endless parade of objections to pass. “Why should I?” “Why does it matter?” “Why right now?” “Why not later?” “Why can’t I?” “Tell me why?” Adolescent arguments challenge declarations and requests that parents wish would go unquestioned. This is why adolescent arguing has been given a bad name, at least by some parents.
So what follows are a few arguments in favor of adolescent arguing which parents might want to keep in mind.
ARGUING IS SPEAKING UP. Adolescents declare something about what they think or want when arguing. Declaring themselves, they become more publically known and socially defined. They put themselves on record by the position they express. Contrast an adolescent who can speak up in this way with an adolescent who can’t, and which of the two is better equipped to make their way through the world? An adolescent who won’t give you an argument can be an adolescent who is too wed to shutting up, too inexpressive and unassertive for their own good.
ARGUING IS INFORMATIVE. When an adolescent argues with you they are telling you something about themselves – what matters to them, how they perceive what is going on, how they differ from you. Since they are the best informant you have about what is going on in their mind, why wouldn’t you encourage arguing for the self-disclosure it provides? Why, instead of telling them to stop arguing, wouldn’t you try to draw them out: “Can you tell me more, can you help me better understand? I want to hear all you have to say.” Parents should value being told. An adolescent who won’t give you an argument can be like having a mystery child, a child in hiding who never tells you when they disagree, who keeping you in a constant state of ignorance about what they really think and want and feel.
ARGUING IS PRACTICE. Parents are like safe sparring partners when it comes to arguing, the young person verbally taking parents on to develop debate skills they can use with others. What the adolescent chooses to argue about is up to the teenager, but how that practice is conducted is up to parents who teach how to speak and listen when one disagrees, and what kind of language is okay and is not. Sometimes parents will ruefully joke how they have raised a trained litigator who has attorney level skills when it comes to presenting and defending her or his position. An adolescent who won’t give you an argument may not be very well prepared to verbally take up for themselves and make their case with other adult authorities, or may be at a social disadvantage when it comes to standing up to more verbally expressive peers.
ARGUING IS TALKING OUT. Acting out to settle a disagreement, by physical aggression or angry yelling for example, is not the same as using reasoned words to argue about the issue at difference to reach an agreement. Acting out to get one’s way risks more hurt from the interaction and makes a unified resolution harder to come by. This is why, as soon as they could, parents taught the little child to put into words what only unhappy actions used to be able to convey. Parents need to appreciate when their adolescent chooses to use verbal argument (speaking up) over acting out -- like throwing a tantrum or object or storming off. An adolescent who won’t talk out disagreements with parents, but only acts out to get her or his way, is ill prepared for a world of relationships where arguing is how most disagreements are confronted, discussed, and resolved.
ARGUING IS RESPECTFUL. Sometimes parents consider adolescent arguing as “talking back” to adults and being disrespectful – questioning what elders say when silence submission is the approved way to go. Actually, arguing with parents is a sign of respect. Disrespect would be totally ignoring what parents have to say. By arguing, the adolescent acknowledges parental rights to take positions, set limits, and make demands. Arguing is exercising the adolescent right to challenge the family powers that be on the way to becoming her is his ruling authority when growing up is done. An adolescent who is disrespectful not only disregards what parents have to say and want to have happen. The teenager holds their authority in such complete disregard she or he does not consider them worth arguing with at all.
ARGUING IS THOUGHTFUL. To argue one’s case, the adolescent has to organize his or her ideas. Reasonable statements must be advanced, counter arguments must be created, and personal positions must be defended. Debate must be conducted. Arguing isn’t easy, particularly with adults who have more life experience doing it than do you. Sometimes research is needed – finding out information that will help your cause. Then there’s putting your argument in a form that is least likely to offend and most likely to convince. Through it all, you have to keep your head so frustration with opposition doesn’t cause you to get angry, upset, and defeat your persuasive way. It takes a lot of mental discipline to argue well. An adolescent who can’t keep their thoughts together during the back and forth intensity of argument may become disorganized or lose emotional control in the process. In either case they undermine their own effectiveness.
ARGUING IS INDEPENDENT. Think of arguing as an act of dissent with the ruling family powers that be. Argument declares independence by expressing what is personally true or works for you in opposition to what parents believe or want to have happen. Argument with parents is part of the process through which individual identity is expressed and social independence is gained – the twin goals of adolescence. Arguing is thinking and speaking for oneself. Unwillingness to argue with parents can protract dependence on their authority by continuing unquestioned compliance with it. An adolescent who can’t individually express and independently argue with parents can have difficulty representing self-interest with other adult authorities. And in young adulthood they may still be unable to openly assert who and how they are with parents. Authenticity with the adult child requires that young person to be able to honestly disagree with parents.
ARGUING IS COURAGEOUS. Parents are among the most psychologically powerful people in the child’s and adolescent’s world. To the degree that parents feel intimidating, that displeasing them feels hard to do, that offending them is hardest of all, arguing with them as an adolescent can feel daunting. It is because taking parents on with argument can feel scary that arguing with parents can be an act of courage. “Speaking the truth to power” is never easy, particularly to people as powerful as parents. With this knowledge in mind, parents can make it safe to argue with them by listening respectfully, not putting the young person down in any way, like with humor or sarcasm. For adolescents, arguing with parents is no laughing (or to be laughed at) matter. It is a serious business because they want what they have to say be taken seriously and not be discounted or dismissed by reason of younger age or less life experience. An adolescent who avoids arguments at home fearful of a high controlling, domineering, or overbearing parent not only may lack openness in that relationship, but may also lack the courage to engage in honest disagreement with significant others later on.
ARGUING IS INFLUENTIAL. To get what they want out in the world from others, arguing is one way this can be done. So, when a young person finds that sometimes arguing a point can persuade parents to change their mind or grant what is requested, faith in this persuasive use of words is affirmed and encouraged. Even if they don’t get their way, but are taken seriously and have a fair hearing, they have the satisfaction of knowing they have made their case. “At least I tried!” That’s why people spend the energy to do it. An adolescent for who argument is discouraged or penalized, or who sees it as pointless may decide declaring their position and debating their point is a waste of effort. Now they sacrifice a major source of interpersonal effect, and they may start to rely on more covert and indirect means to get their way. The only failed argument is the failure to argue at all. Arguing can be influential.
ARGUING IS COLLABORATIVE. Arguing is not simply an oppositional or adversarial or competitive process; it is a communicative and cooperative one. It takes two parties working together (with and against each other) to make it happen. This is why argument has positive possibilities. For example, when the teenager wants one course of action and the parent wants another, sharing and hearing their respective arguments can create a larger picture of the disagreement between them. As argument increases understanding, there is more room for discussion and negotiation. In the process, both of them can prove smarter than one of them because now each knows more than they did before and together they can craft an alternative outcome that mutually works. An adolescent who is taught the collaborative and communicative value of argument can learn to treat it as a valuable tool for jointly working out human disagreements, for solving problems, and for creating better possibilities.
Of course, by instruction, example, and interaction parents need to teach their adolescent to argue “respectfully” which means that no one is hurt and everyone is heard. To know how to argue safely and effectively is an extremely valuable life skill that enables a young person to represent and advocate for self-interest, and to negotiate their way.
Don’t graduate a son or daughter from your care without it.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: The Use and Abuse of Parental Criticism