Civil Discourse: Family Edition

Posted on January 27, 2021

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In my last post, “Just Say No to Theocracy,” I “call[ed] upon Americans of conscience to join with me to commit time, energy, and resources to make America a secular democracy again, at local, state, and national levels of government.”

I recently read an essay in the Winter 2018 Orion magazine titled “Keeping It Civil” by H. Emerson Blake. In the essay, Blake asks readers, “What would it be like to spend less time making general statements about how offended we are, and more time identifying and articulating what it is that we really want? What would it be like to spend more time developing a healthy assertiveness, rather than one that is loud and angry and can be captured in 280 characters?”

What would it be like?

I think it would be like my Freshman English class! Upon meeting my new students each year, the first and most important task was to teach my students how to engage with real-world issues, through reading, writing, research, speaking, and listening–with respect for all members of the classroom community. Every fall, I taught Civil Discourse, so that my students would be ready to participate in a democratic society, in the school community, and as voters, when they reached adulthood.

Democracy is not “once-and-done.” Democracy is a process; democracy is a practice. As parents, we can model participatory democracy by engaging in the electoral process, teach participatory democracy by explaining how the processes work to elect government officials, and immerse our children in democratic practices in our homes and families. Participating in democracy requires us to engage in civil discourse, to engage in lawmaking and governing, and to base our decisions on the best available evidence.

Civil Discourse

One of the most important democratic practices for discussing issues that affect the family is the Talking Circle. My medicine elder, Joseph Many Horses, taught that there are two rules for Talking Circle:

1. Tell the truth.

2. Speak from your heart.

My time in the high school classroom showed me that students can offer profound insights into social issues in a Talking Circle–when they have ample time to prepare and clear guidance. I found that my students were most successful when I:

1. let students know the date of the TC days or weeks in advance, depending on the issues and texts under discussion;

2. provided students with a few open-ended questions to choose to discuss;

3. provided students with clear descriptions of the attitudes and behaviors of civil discourse. I used the same rubric for every TC, and I discussed the expectations before every TC, so that students knew that we were striving for exemplary TC participation, described in the rubric:

Student shows an exemplary level of attention and respect for the classroom community. Student listens actively, gives positive nonverbal feedback, and those around him or her are heard and feel respected. Student comments indicate a thorough knowledge of the text(s), show insight into the levels of meaning of the text(s), and  make connections to the world beyond the classroom.

While parents needn’t be as formal with family members, teaching children explicit attitudes and behaviors that allow for every voice to be heard and every perspective to be considered will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of collaboration.

Even very young children can take part in group decision making, when parents tailor the choices to their age and ability. Questions like, “Which park should visit today? What should this week’s menu be?”, paired with a limited number of choices to avoid overwhelming a child, can help children learn how to begin to make arguments and provide reasons or evidence for their positions.

Along with learning the processes for peaceful, collaborative, decision-making, children also learn about compromise, and when they don’t get everything they want, we can help them learn how to lose with grace, and without dehumanizing other group members.

Of course, parenting is, many times, an authoritarian exercise by necessity, but by consciously engaging in democratic discussions and decision-making, children can become empowered, capable, and confident members of the family and the larger community.

Lawmaking and Governing

Again, there is plenty of territory that will be off-limits for the children, but also, there are plenty of opportunities to invite children into the rule-making and governing processes of family life. One of my favorite shared rule-making moments from parenting young teens was the “Two-Song Rule” for car rides.

In order to avoid conflict over what music we would listen to in the car, we adopted a rule that each occupant could choose two songs in a row to play, and that, if one wanted to discuss a selection, we would do so civilly. My children introduced me to many new artists during that period, and I have fond memories of driving down the road to tunes by Marilyn Manson, Usher, Metallica, Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Damian Marley…

As children grow toward adulthood, we can involve them in the rule-making and governing of family life in age-appropriate ways; we can teach them the important role that good rules play in a peaceful society and the democratic processes that allow groups to change the rules when new rules are necessary.

Evidence-Based Decisions

The easiest place to start with this democratic practice is with something a child wants. To begin exploration of the role of evidence in decision making with high school freshmen, I would propose a situation where the student wants to do something that they know their parent might say “no” to. “What kinds of information and arguments can you make to convince your parent to say yes?”

For example, the student wants to attend an evening social gathering. How can they convince the parent that they should be able to go? Might they show that they have done all their chores? Might they show that they have completed their schoolwork? Might they call upon an “expert witness,” like another parent who is allowing their child to attend? What counts as “convincing evidence” in this instance? On the other hand, what kinds of evidence would lead the parent to say no?

With this simple exercise, I would begin instruction in argument, and as the months passed, students would learn how to evaluate sources and cite valid sources of evidence, avoid logical fallacies, and organize arguments and relevant information for the most impact.

Family life has so many opportunities for children to present arguments with evidence: Which pizza restaurant offers the best pizza at the lowest price? Which type of shoe should one purchase to engage in a particular sport? What will be the theme for Halloween pumpkin carving? What kind of a birthday celebration does a child want? All of these decisions offer kids the opportunity to practice the “show and tell” of making good arguments: show the evidence and tell why one choice is better than the others.

As we can see by the recent violent reaction by some in the GOP to losing the presidential election, far too many Americans have not learned the basics of democracy. As parents, we can make sure that our children know how to engage in democratic processes, so that, in the future, we won’t see them on TV, trying to overturn a free and fair election.


lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com