This school year, my husband and I have spent many weekends supporting our son Henry as he debates topics like the Cuban trade embargo and immigration at middle school debate tournaments around NYC. A fifth grader at SA Midtown West, Henry, has become a critical thinker who’s passionate about questioning assumptions and capable of articulating an opinion — even ones he doesn’t agree with.
It’s safe to say that a passion for debate runs in our family. In fact, without debate, our family wouldn’t exist! I met my husband at a debate camp and tournament held in Prague during the summer of 1996. He had just graduated from Columbia University, where he was on the debate team and was heading to law school the following year. I was a recent college graduate working in Croatia as a trainer for the Karl Popper Debate Program, sponsored by the Open Society Institute.
My work took me to several post-Soviet countries, where I helped to establish youth debate groups. Debate was a revolutionary idea in these countries, where generations of children had been educated in schools that discouraged critical thinking. I strongly believed (and still do) that teaching young people to participate in intelligent, informed debate has the power to transform society. That’s one reason why today, I teach public speaking to undergraduates at Barnard College, and also help students at Columbia Law School hone the argumentative and presentation skills they’ll need in the courtroom.
I strongly believed (and still do) that teaching young people to participate in intelligent, informed debate has the power to transform society.
At home, my husband and I try to offer our children those same opportunities. We infuse debate and critical thinking in our daily conversations with our kids — always asking them why they feel the way they do and challenging them to see different sides of various arguments. For example, our family has a cat, but a while back we were debating whether to also get a dog. I told Henry and my younger daughter Fiona, that they would have to debate the merits of dogs versus cats at the dinner table. Henry argued on behalf of the dog, while Fiona advocated for cats — even though she also wanted a dog! Getting kids to really see both sides of any issue is so important.
Below, you’ll find a few tips that we use as parents to get our elementary and middle school-aged kids thinking like real debaters — I hope they’ll help your family, too!
- Ask for evidence! If your child declares their opinion about a headline they read, or even a social conflict at school — they should be able to back up their opinions with facts. This mindset will help them become intelligent thinkers, writers, and speakers.
- Explain your own reasoning. If you’re in the middle of making a decision — especially if it impacts your kids — explain your own thinking. Modeling decision-making will help them see all sides of an issue.
- Make them make the case. When our children really, really want a new tech gadget, toy, or experience, they need to make their case logically, responding to our counterarguments. Sometimes our kids change our minds, and sometimes they don’t — but building a full case helps them become more logical thinkers, and teaches them to distinguish between what they need, and what they want.
SA’s debate program has been a great platform for Henry to hone the skills he learns at home. These days, he sometimes even convinces me to change my mind about my decisions! The program offers him and his peers the chance to go head-to-head in debates against students at competitive public and private schools around New York City. We were thrilled when we found out our school was planning a debate team, and even more excited when we realized Henry loved debate. When families and schools can work together to cultivate students’ passions, everyone wins!