Parenting and Reason

The following is the epitome of unreason: "The guy who disagrees with me isn't a thinking person with a genuine opinion. He is an ignorant idiot who has not seen the self-evident truth I know. Therefore, it's not a real disagreement, he's just being a stubborn jerk even though there's no possibility he's right."

This attitude is most commonly applied to Republicans. Just kidding. It's most commonly applied to children.

This attitude is bad because mistakes are common, and it's important to have an attitude that lets us learn new things and fix our mistaken ideas. This attitude assumes that "I am right" and doesn't allow for the possibility of a mistake.

It's true that children are ignorant, and they are often mistaken about things most adults know because they aren't familiar with some valuable, traditional knowledge.

It's also true that children sometimes are correct, but the adults think they are ignorant and mistaken, because the adults have a misconception. If adults do have misconceptions, including about matters they consider simple, then that's bound to come up sometimes.

The way to deal with disagreements due to ignorance is by informing the other person of some relevant things he doesn't know. Now he may agree. If he doesn't, the disagreement isn't due to ignorance anymore. Maybe it's because the arguments you gave aren't complete, and you accepted them anyway, but the other guy is unsure. If that's the case, then this is a great opportunity. In fleshing them out, you'll learn something too. And also, when looking into the details more, you might have the opportunity to discover you were mistaken and change your mind.

A common complaint parents have is that if I tell a child a persuasive, complete argument or explanation then he still won't listen. But why wouldn't someone accept a compelling argument?

Perhaps the argument didn't address some question he had, or some criticism of it, or some counter argument. In that case, it wasn't really complete, and I was mistaken about how good my argument was.

Perhaps my argument was hard to understand, or confusing. In that case, it's not a persuasive argument after all. How can I expect someone to be persuaded by something he doesn't understand?

Perhaps accepting my argument would lead to a problem for the child. Maybe it contradicts one of his existing ideas. If so, the argument is incomplete for the child, even though it was complete for me. It doesn't contain all the knowledge necessary for the child to fit it into his mind. He needs to know how to reconcile it with his existing knowledge.

All of these are common. And they can be addressed by an effort. It may take some time, especially when new to problem solving, but there's no rational alternative to approaching disagreements rationally. And using reason is a skill which you can improve at until it is second nature.

Disagreements always indicate at least one person has made at least some small mistake. Therefore, approaching them rationally — in a way capable of correcting mistakes — is crucial.

One mistake parents sometimes make is to assume that because their argument or explanation is compelling and complete, then there's no reason for the child not to accept it, and therefore the only conclusion left is malice. The child won't listen because he's selfish, greedy, hateful, spiteful, sinful, stupid, childish, immature, wants to be difficult, or something like that. This attitude leads to a bad parent-child relationship; prevents parents from improving their communication and truth seeking skill; prevents parents from looking into issues in enough depth to find mistakes they may have made; and pressures the child to defer to authority (the parent starts threatening punishments for non-compliance since the conversation is at an end), rather than helping him learn to think and judge for himself.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!