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Dinner Table Debates

  • Chris Jeub
  • Published Jan 15, 2002
Dinner Table Debates

"What? Teach my kid to debate?" one parent asked me after a debate presentation for 4,000 Minnesota home educators. "My kid debates too much as it is!"

Good point. I have two teenagers at home who know how to turn an argument on a dime. If I say, "Be home by 9," they ask, "Why not 10?" "Clean your room" is countered with, "It isn't messy." "Don't argue with me" is answered with the rebuttal, "I'm not arguing!"

Rather than waste all this natural talent, I had my kids enter the sport of academic debate. The skills my kids have acquired have helped them cultivate public speaking and witnessing skills, resist peer pressure, and has given them a better understanding of a logical argument. While adolescence is often characterized as a time to let their emotions loose, debaters are more apt to reason their way through problems and conflicts.

Healthy debate teaches these much-needed communication skills. It does not, however, produce divisiveness or rudeness. This misconception usually stems from a misunderstanding of what an argument is. Some view an argument as nothing more than a fight and debate as a manipulative means for getting one's own way. But an argument is also a logical process, and debate a productive method for getting to the truth of a matter. Many of the Bible’s heroes were great debaters: the prophets (Ezekiel 3:11; Isaiah 43:26; Proverbs 27:5), the apostles (1 Peter 1:13-15; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Colossians 4:5-6) and Christ himself (Matthew 28:19; Luke 11:33-26; John 15:26-27). Examples of debate are plentiful throughout Scripture.

In fact, God's Word shows that ignoring and avoiding debate is harmful. Many of the foolish kings of Israel were noted for their unwillingness to listen to the prophets’ reasoning.

Remember how the chief priests and elders questioned Jesus on his authority to heal in Matthew 21:23-27? Jesus responded with a good debate question: whether John’s baptism came from heaven or from men. The priests and elders refused to answer because they knew it was a loaded question. Another example was Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” when questioning Jesus (John 18:38). Pilate never waited around for an answer, nor did he really want one.

Debate is a stimulating and healthy exercise for the mind, and if we want our children to be good debaters, we will want them to hone this skill. But how can we teach proper argumentation and debate in the home? By taking advantage of simple conflicts that arise within every family.

Start with something simple. In the following scenario, Timmy, 12, and Sarah, 14, usually share in clearing the table and loading the dishwasher every night after supper.

However, Timmy has been working hard lately on an exciting fort in the backyard, and written all over his face is the desire to snap on the tool belt and head back out to his project. Dad wants to encourage Timmy to get back to work on something he enjoys, but he knows Sarah would resent the favoritism, so he takes off his watch and says:

Dad: Timmy, I know you don’t want to do dishes because the fort you’re building out back is calling you. You have one minute to plead your case as to why you should get out of the dishes. Ready? (Dad starts his watch.) Go!

Timmy: Well, uh, let’s see. You all know how I have been using the old lumber in the shed to build my fort. Mom herself said it was an educational project. Just last week Sarah was cramming for her tests and I had to do all the dishes. You know how rain can wipe out an entire week’s worth of fort building, and this weather — 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky — is ideal, and I need to take advantage of it. Besides, I did the dishes at lunch — a chore Sarah usually has to do — but I did it out of the kindness of my own heart. The least she can do is help me out in my education by doing the few dishes here. And one more thing. . .

Dad: Time’s up.

Timmy: But Dad, one more. . .

Dad: Time’s up is time’s up. We have to keep this fair. (Turns to Mom.) Sound’s pretty convincing, doesn’t it, Mom?

Mom: I’ll say!

Dad: (Turning to Sarah.) Well, Sarah. You need to negate Timmy’s proposal. You have two minutes to offer your rebuttal. Ready? Go!

Sarah: Well, you may think that’s convincing, but Timmy is twisting the facts a bit. First of all, my studying for school is far more important than pounding some boards together in the backyard. I couldn't put off my testing, but Timmy’s fort could wait all summer. Second, Timmy did the lunch dishes as a punishment for not making his bed this morning, not out of the kindness of his heart. I shouldn’t be punished for his punishment. If anyone should get out of dishes, it is me. If we want to talk about doing other people’s chores, I mowed the entire lawn this afternoon and walked the dog, while Timmy was pounding away on his fort. When I asked him to empty the grass clippings, he put up a fuss and complained the entire time. As far as I’m concerned, Timmy doesn’t deserve getting out of dishes.

Dad: That’s 1:42. Not bad timing, and excellent arguments.

Timmy: They were okay.

Dad: (To Timmy.) Well, kiddo, you’re fighting for air. You have one minute to make your final rebuttal. Go!

Timmy: Sarah can say all she wants about how her testing is somehow superior to my fort-building, but she didn’t refute the fact that rain could keep me from building the fort in the future. So what if I did the lunch dishes as a punishment — I still did them, didn’t I? Sarah loves it when I have to do her chores as punishment. As I recall, she went bike riding while I slaved away in the kitchen. And I didn’t fuss and complain when Sarah asked me to empty the grass clippings. I would have loved to do the lawn, but, as you know, I am not old enough to use the mower. Why should I be punished for something that is out of my control? And one more thing. . .

Dad: Time’s up!

Timmy: Aw, but Dad. . .

Dad: No, Timmy, time is up. (To Mom.) Well, Mom, it was a good round. Now we have to make a decision. What do you think?

Mom: It’s a tough one.

Now Mom and Dad will make their decision based on how well they think their son and daughter presented their arguments. Ordinarily, situations like this could have ended up in a bickering fight. Mom and Dad stepping in and resolving the conflict may have ended the arguing, but the kids wouldn't have learned much. In debate, winning and losing is not the objective; the goal is to articulate your arguments to communicate the truth in a persuasive manner.

To find out who was most persuasive in this dinner table debate, tune in next week for Part 2!  

Chris Jeub, a former teacher from the upper midwest, is Web editor to Focus on the Family's Web site. He is also president of Training Minds Ministry, an organization dedicated to training young minds in the arts of speaking and persuasion. He is author of many home-school resources, one being "Jeub's Complete Guide to Speech and Debate," a textbook written specifically for homeschools. You can view more about Chris Jeub and Training Minds Ministry at