Bringing 'disagree better' home: Teaching kids to negotiate instead of fight

How to model disagreements — with a neighbor over politics, your spouse over money, your kid over curfew — may be one of the most impactful gifts to give your children

How to model disagreements — with a neighbor over politics, your spouse over money, your kid over curfew — may be one of the most impactful gifts to give your children (Zoe Peterson, Deseret News)

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LOGAN — There's an aspect of parenting that doesn't get a lot of attention in the trove of how-to books that promise to make raising a family a little easier.

But how to model disagreements — with a neighbor over politics, your spouse over money, your kid over curfew — may be one of the most impactful gifts to give your children. If, that is, you do it right.

Scholars from the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University and Utah State University's Extension Service have created a primer of sorts, a three-part lesson plan called "Disagree Better: A Parenting Toolkit." It's a free online resource to help families figure out how to manage the disagreements that occur at home and away.

Jason S. Carroll, family initiatives director for the institute and a professor at the School of Family Life, and David Schramm, USU Extension family life specialist and the chief architect of the toolkit, were in Nashville Tuesday to present the parenting course to the National Governor's Association in a discussion format moderated by Paul S. Edwards, director of the institute. Schramm wrote most of the course, while Carroll directed the project and collaborated on the toolkit.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is chairman of the National Governors Association this year, and his initiative is "Disagree Better." The release on the project notes, "As this year's NGA president, Gov. Cox launched this initiative to address the growing polarization and divisiveness in public discourse by encouraging citizens to engage in open, honest, and respectful conversations about important issues facing the state and the nation."

Roadmap to a productive disagreement

Back in early fall, as Cox and others talked about what his Disagree Better initiative would look like, it was pointed out how important it would be to get ideas around resolving escalating conflict and polarizing issues, Carroll said. "That really starts at home: Children learn values; they see examples of how to talk to people inside of their homes." He said Wheatley was approached to put together a parent education toolkit. Since Utah State's Extension is a national leader in offering online programs and doing this type of curriculum, this seemed like a good match of teams and resources, giving birth to the joint venture.

Utah State's Extension is working to ensure universities and others can also link in and make use of this so that it can be pushed out to the different states as part of the initiative. They're leaving room for states to adapt as they adopt the toolkit to make it their own, and they have some suggestions on how to do that.

The goal was to create something that hit certain targets. "We wanted to create something that was practical, that was beneficial, that was engaging, that has a self-assessment," said Schramm, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Utah State University.

The first lesson is "It Starts with Me." It's a roughly 20-minute session that lets parents take a look at their own behavior and the potential consequences to their children, who absorb what they see and hear in a potent mentoring session that often isn't recognized as such. Whether a parent models traits like civility, kindness and respect may shape what kind of adults their children become and the journey that child will travel to get there. It includes the "Dignity Index" self-assessment to help parents get a clearer picture of their own behaviors.

The other two segments tackle managing disagreements inside the home and those outside the home. Each lesson can be completed in a half-hour or less.

In a phone conversation Monday from Nashville, Carroll and Schramm emphasized that many disagreements happen because people forget the other person is actually a person. They set aside empathy and tolerance, understanding and the ability to listen to another point of view because they become entrenched in their own position — even on silly things that aren't worthy of contention.

As they noted in background information on the toolkit, "The lessons emphasize what we call the PAUSE approach to handling disagreements, which involves 'Pausing, Asking sincere questions, aiming for Understanding, Seeking common ground, and Engaging in respectful discussion.'"

Besides the toolkit, the initiative will include public events and workshops to help people improve how they engage and disagree.

Parents, they're watching you

Disagreement is not a bad thing — and they're going to happen. But how you do them determines relationships, whether you can persuade someone you're right and whether problems get resolved.

Schramm emphasized that when you're disagreeing with someone, "It's really important to learn how to see the person behind the problem. That big picture is that we teach our kids — that people are more important than problems."

He said the irritation with others in disagreements is really an invitation to pause, "to aim for understanding, for compassion. For another perspective taking. We don't have to agree. I think that's the big point: Disagreements can be healthy. It can even be great. That's how a lot of great work happens is by disagreements and different perspectives."

For that to happen, Carroll and Schramm agree, you have to see people as humans and treat them that way.

"We know that conflict resolution takes work and involves difficult conversations," Cox was quoted saying on the association's Disagree Better website. "It's much easier to sow division than to persuade or find solutions. But we also know that no one ever changed someone's mind by attacking them. Through healthy conflict, we're confident that we can find common ground and improve our families, our communities and our nation. Together, we can disagree better."

Parents don't always set a good example. "Too many families are guilty of not giving their family members their best." Caroll said children sometimes see parents at their best but also see them when they end a phone conversation and then say something mean about the person they with whom they were speaking. They hear the sometimes-rude comments parents make when watching TV or the news. "'That person is such an idiot' is not the best example of modeling respect for others," Carroll noted.

"Oftentimes, parents might not even think about that, as parents, right? They're just talking on the phone in the car; they're just watching the news. They don't think about the child that's in the room or in the car with them absorbing those messages and learning quite a bit, is what the research will tell us," he added.

Schramm said such behavior normalizes negatives. "They're picked up even more by actions and words, by watching parents, by listening, rather than the actual sit-down discussion around the dinner table. Hopefully, those are happening."

The digital environment makes it worse, Carroll said. "Because of some of the perceived anonymity or that kind of distance, we see a lot of the real, just lack of dignity, just dismissing the humanity of other people. People will say things and interact with others in ways that maybe they would pause if it was in a face-to-face interaction."

It would be "pretty alarming," he warns, if a rising generation embraces the worst of interactions and treats contentiousness as normal.

Profiting from picking fights

Carroll points out that many things that influence us, including media in the arena of politics, sports and other areas, are geared for conflict because that sells. People should remind themselves of that, he said, remembering some industries "aren't about helping us have flourishing families. They are trying to draw our time, our attention, our clicks, our advertising dollars." He urges families to be thoughtful in their consumption and participation in things created to cause conflict.

Many children struggle with anxiety and depression, as well as uncertainty. "Not helping them see the good in the world and emphasizing that is a disservice to young people," he said. "I think most people want these things and are good, but we get these little snippets, and it starts to really cast the world into this kind of us-them approach. It's not helping our rising generation feel very optimistic about the world they live in."

Schramm hopes families will be more intentional in slowing things down and having difficult discussions in productive ways.

They both recommend trying to see the point of view of the person with whom you disagree. Agreement isn't necessary, but respect and interest are. They find "unfortunate" the growing tendency to listen solely to those with whom you agree.

And for people of faith, said Carroll, it's worth remembering that most faith traditions say something about peace and coexisting in positive ways. When children hear that message in church and then see their parents acting in polarizing and contentious ways, it's confusing.

To access the toolkit, visit

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UtahFamilyPoliticsEducationUtah CountyNorthern Utah
Lois M. Collins
Lois M. Collins covers policy and research impacting families for the Deseret News.


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