Disagreeing Appropriately | Teaching Self-Government

Disagreeing Appropriately

A few years ago, a reader wrote, "My kids love being able to disagree appropriately, but I don't want them to do it every single time! They’re smart and have good reasons for wanting to do things a different way, and sometimes I’m happy to let them change our direction. But I don't like taking the time to listen to their opinion every time I ask them to do something they don't want to do. Suggestions?”

First off, it’s awesome that your children have caught on to disagreeing appropriately! This is a huge skill to master. I bet your children are still experimenting to make sure it works and that they’re heard by a parent every time. Be patientand let them see that it really works. 

I used to have foster children who would disagree appropriately about everything. I kept letting one child disagree to her heart’s content, and she stopped doing it after about a month. She figured out that it took more time and that agreeing with “No” answers was sometimes for the best. 

The other child wouldn’t stop disagreeing about everything. She was a talker and thrived on monopolizing other people's time. Eventually we had to teach her when it was good to disagree appropriately. We started by sticking to our "No" answers half the time so that she had to practice agreeing with our decisions. Part of disagreeing appropriately is accepting the decision of the parent, which means that sometimes the answer has to be “No.”

I often tell people to go along with the disagreement to teach children to master their own emotions. After that is established, start adding more "No" answers, even if the disagreement is good. This helps them practice accepting a "No" answer and following instructions.

Chances are the children have figured out that if they ask to disagree appropriately, they won't have to say “Yes” to things they don’t want to do. It’s good they have figured out self-mastery, but they also need to practice saying “Yes” when they don't get their way. That way they can control their impulse to choose negative behaviors. 

It also helped this child to have a counseling session. I had a special talk with her over ice cream and told her how well she was doing at disagreeing appropriately. We talked about whether she thought it was a good skill to have. I told her I had noticed she needed to work on mastering the impulse to monopolize other people’s time and that I was confident she could master it as well as she mastered disagreeing appropriately. I explained that she needed to choose to not disagree unless it was really necessary.

The thing that made the most impact in our conversation was when I told her that if she disagreed with us too often, we would get annoyed and think she had respect issues. If she let it get to that point, she might want to disagree about something really important, but we would just be frustrated and say “No." She didn’t realize that could happen and was grateful I told her. She had not looked ahead to see the behavior could backfire on her. 

What I shared is called a “rational,” which meant something to my foster daughter. Give a rational for things as often as you can, and make sure the rational is something that matters to the child. My favorite kinds of rationals are when I tell children what their behavior is communicating to me. They’re impulsive and self-motivated and don't often put themselves in other people's shoes or look ahead to what might happen if they keep up that behavior. It helps when I enlighten them. If they learn to see what others might be thinking, they take a big step to learning how to govern themselves.

Disagreeing appropriately is a great skill because it gives children a healthy way to problem-solve and verbalize things. Just remember to say "No" sometimes, and most likely things will work out. Every time my children disagree appropriately, which is fairly often, I first smile so they know I am proud of them. Then I listen to their disagreement and either say “Yes” or “No.”

Best of luck!