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Courts provide apt lessons for children on civil discourse

Originally published November 17, 2023 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.




I watched last week as Republican nominees for president took the brightly lit stage for a nationally televised debate. One needn’t watch long to find name-calling, below the belt jabs, familial insults and personal attacks. That’s how defensive anger works. It starts with a root and ends with a full bloom of emotion; sometimes that leads to physical violence and sometimes it ends in hate-filled insults, but it always blooms with a toxic spray of poison.

It’s clear now more than ever, our world is desperate for critical thinkers; ones who can face opposing opinions without hurling angry remarks or punches.

On the altar of civic discourse, we have often abandoned civil discourse and meandered into the sensational. I watched that debate, or all I could stand to watch, with my husband and son of 14. My prevailing thoughts were, please let my son see the buffoonery as it is and not concede to its merits in his mind.


How can we teach our kids to disagree with one another without losing their dignity or costing others theirs?


The United States Court System has developed some guidelines to help give expectations for what civil discourse is to look like in the courtroom. It’s a helpful guide for us when we engage in any adversarial conversation, which unless we’re a Benedictine monk or take a Hindu vow of silence, we will face. Whether it be with our spouse or the “representative” we’re on hold for about our failed internet connection, no doubt disagreements abound.


In the need to set some ground rules, we can look no further than the court of law to give us key takeaways on how to face opposing views and present an argument:


  • Be mindful of your own behavior. Notice how you internally are reacting/responding when others speak. Pay attention to how your words and your silence are impacting the experience for others in the group.

  • Create a welcoming environment for differing opinions. Are you looking at each speaker and giving your full attention? Are you listening with an open mind — momentarily putting aside what you will say next? Are you being careful not to take over the conversation by talking longer than others? Are you refraining from subtle, but disrespectful behavior or not paying attention when others speak?

  • Wait to be recognized by the other person/moderator before speaking. This allows time — before you speak — for reflection on what the previous person or persons have said.

  • Don’t interrupt or talk over someone else who is speaking, even when you are excited.

  • Avoid side conversations. They are disrespectful to the speaker and distract listeners from the person who has the floor.

  • Listen for content in the statements of others, especially when you disagree. Listen for what the speakers are trying to communicate, even if they aren’t expressing their points concisely.

  • Find common ground. Identify and call attention to areas of agreement.

  • Follow the direction of the discussion. Don’t repeat what has already been said. Relate your comments to those of previous speakers.

  • Ask clarifying questions. Don’t assume that you know what someone else means. Ask the speaker to help you understand perspectives different from your own.

  • Don’t embarrass yourself or disrespect others by making demeaning or inappropriate comments, facial expressions, or gestures. No eye rolling, sighing, or checking out of the conversation.

The home is the first place to start practicing these skills. The kitchen table is where kids learn our patterns of how to talk to someone who doesn’t agree, whether it’s disagreeing with a sibling about the latest Marvel movie or an argument over how long someone is taking in a shared bathroom.


School is another place for kids to practice how to present their views and disagree civilly. Debate classes or clubs are crucial in helping students gain experience within a controlled and moderated environment on how to feel emotions while communicating and not let them get the best of you in any given situation.


In Atlanta, we are incredibly fortunate to have the first urban debate league in the United States, touching over 40,000 students and educators since its inception between Atlanta Public Schools and Emory University in 1985. It has set an industry standard for seeding programs in partnership with public school systems and universities in 24 major cities across the nation. Through programs, workshops and tournaments, the Atlanta Urban Debate Leagueteaches critical thinking skills, research methods and communication skills to participants.


Benefits abound for students to participate in debate. From social and emotional health, college readiness, increasing high school graduation rates, raising grade-point averages, to increases in standardized test scores, the positive correlations between the structure of debate clubs are astounding.


In a culture that will cancel you for any misstep, it’s especially important that we hold steadfast to civil discourse as a societal value. It’s OK to disagree.


As we gather round the table with friends and family this holiday season, it’s a perfect time to practice. Setting aside unhealthy examples from national political pundits, we can do better. Buddha said, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” No one is perfect or will ever have arrived at perfection, so let’s choose to be a continual learner and critical thinker.

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