Teaching Kids to Disagree Respectfully

Family eating dinner together, talking and smiling

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One of the most important skills children should learn is how to disagree with others respectfully. School-age kids are establishing their individuality and independence, forming their own opinions about things, and figuring out what they like and don't like. It's only natural that they may occasionally not see eye-to-eye on something with a friend, family member, or even a teacher or coach.

Developmentally speaking, it's good for children to learn to form their own opinions and to be able to express their thoughts and ideas. But it's important for kids to understand that they must express themselves in a respectful manner, whether they're discussing something with adults or with other kids. In fact, the ability to calmly share your ideas even when it conflicts with other people's viewpoints is a sign of maturity. When you see adults who are not able to do this, they appear immature.

What Parents Can Do to Encourage Polite Discussions

  1. Keep an eye on what your child is seeing when you are watching the news, and monitor what your child sees online. Politicians and pundits may yell insults at each other on TV. People may make horrible comments online. It's more important than ever that children today learn how to reject meanness and bullying and choose respect and civility.
  2. Encourage your child to be a good listener, and make sure you model that behavior by giving him your attention when he speaks to you. Listening is a sign of respect and is an important skill for school, as well as later in life. Teach your child to really listen to what someone else is saying and try to understand their point of view.
  3. Talk about current events at dinner. Regular family dinners are important for kids' health and development and have been linked to positive outcomes like lower risk of obesity, better school performance, and higher self-esteem. They are also a prime opportunity for kids to learn to express their opinions about what's going on in the world and in their lives. Encourage your child to talk about current events (school-age kids can start reading the paper or a kids' news magazine like Time for Kids); a book she read; or something she's learning in school. Exchange ideas, and give respect to each other's opinions.
  4. Have him practice seeing things from others' point of view. This is one of the fundamental aspects of empathy, which has been shown to be important for kids' success later in life. When kids get into the habit of seeing things from other people's perspective, they learn to see things in less clear-cut ways ("I'm right; you're wrong") and give value to things, even if they don't agree with them.
  5. Teach your child to stay true to his beliefs and thoughts. It can be hard to go your own way when others are doing something different. Tell your child to be confident, and remind him that being sure of one's own ideas and thoughts does not mean you have to insult other people's opinions to make your own stronger—that's the true sign of confidence in your own opinion.
  6. Make sure she understands that texts or emails still need to be polite. Kids and adults alike are constantly on mobile devices today, and a lot of communication happens via email, texts, and instant messages. It's important that kids understand that they need to still express themselves respectfully on those platforms. Teach kids to never insult other people's thoughts and to always try to see their point of view, just as they would when speaking to them in person.
  7. Never, ever insult someone for their opinion. When you disagree on concepts or beliefs or ideas, it should never get personal. Insults or name-calling should not be a part of any discussion.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.