How do we teach the next generation that disagreements don’t necessarily mean dislike?
How can we help them learn to share their thoughts with gentleness and respect in a culture that seems to have no room for healthy public discourse?
These questions emerged from a recent discussion with a group of ministers who dialogue in a closed Facebook group about “the hard stuff,” namely, the theological, cultural and social issues on which we are bound to disagree.
The person who started the group noted that in the other ministry groups he was a part of, if a controversial subject got brought up, the conversation either disintegrated into a fight or turned into a wishy-washy “it doesn’t really matter so believe whatever you want” concession. He felt neither outcome was healthy or helpful.
He created this group to see if there was a way for people to have a discussion about things they disagree on and still remain mature and respectful toward one another.
As I’ve considered these questions, I’ve thought of five avenues for teaching our children the art of civil discourse:
1. We embrace it.
We were created in the image of God and given both a free will and a mind capable of conscious thought. It is inevitable that we are going to disagree on things. Not only is that OK, it is healthy.
Jesus often disagreed with people who came and asked him questions. He often responded in ways that genuinely upset the people who disagreed with him.
He never shied away from a difficult conversation although he did find creative ways to get at the heart issues, rather than the surface ones.
Throughout the Bible, we find conflict and disagreement (Paul and Barnabas, Eunice and Syntyche, Mary and Martha) and we see grace and resolution (Paul and Timothy, Jesus and Nicodemus, Peter and Paul).
It may even be helpful to say to kids, “Look, we aren’t always going to agree, but that doesn’t change my love and respect for you.”
2. We model it.
Adults are teaching kids through everything we do – our actions and our reactions, our conversations and our disagreements. How we respond to others, to the media, to government – all of it – is teaching our children what their response should be.
Go back and reread your social media posts or consider the words you’ve spoken in a conversation knowing that these things could very well frame how your child will act and react in similar situations. Then make the needed changes to model a better way.
3. We engage in it.
The home environment is the perfect place to engage in healthy disagreement.
I’ll never forget one day at dinner when my daughters began to disagree on something and the emotions started to escalate. (They were 11 and 9.) My husband immediately assessed the situation and set out some ground rules.
They were each given two minutes to make their case, one minute to rebut and 30 seconds to respond to the rebuttal. At the end, they had to tell one another that they loved each other.
You know what happened? They still disagreed, but they weren’t angry and frustrated. They were sisters who loved each other and happened to disagree about something.
Don’t shy away from the hard conversations. Teach your children how to engage in healthy ways.
4. We address it.
The worst thing we can do for our children and youth is not address the elephant in the room because we are concerned about making them uncomfortable.
The better approach is to say, “I’m sure you’ve heard about (fill in the blank). How are you feeling about that?” and begin a conversation.
This is especially true in our current political and cultural climate when it seems like hot topics are around every corner.
In my kids’ school, they watch a five-minute news break every morning, so they are not immune to the headlines that we experience. That opens the door for some really great conversation if we choose to engage.
5. We practice it.
Healthy disagreement and helpful resolution are not easy because we are emotional beings surrounded by other emotional beings.
How we address that reality can be compared to how we address any habit or routine that we want to establish; we practice it.
When we feel ourselves beginning to cross an emotional line, practice saying, “I think I need to step back for a bit but thank you so much for talking about this with me” and practice the art of the graceful exit.
James 1:19-20 says, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.”
The gift of understanding, or truly listening, could perhaps be among the greatest gifts we can give our children.
Whether we are talking about a disagreement within a church, a disagreement about politics or a personal disagreement about preferences or beliefs, the reality is disagreement is part of our lives.
If we don’t give the next generation tools for listening and discussing, the divide in our country, homes and churches will continue to widen.
As the old folk song says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
Christina Embree is a church planter with Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Wesley Seminary with a Master of Arts degree in ministry focusing on family, youth and children’s ministry. A longer version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.