Not Pathetic Enough

I thought I had grown up arguing but a college textbook told me otherwise. What I had experienced was merely yelling, bickering, and fighting. Pathetic arguing is very different, at least according to the textbook for English 015 Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs.

Fortunately, Heinrichs did not write a traditional, bore-students-outta-their-skulls textbook so I was not the only one who actually learned something in that class. What we had thought was an argument, was just fighting. We learned that pathetic and pitiful were not synonymous, that a little manipulation was not necessarily a bad thing, and I, specifically, discovered that my parents had gotten things backwards.

Like many traditional cultures, the Amish do not allow children to argue with adults, especially not parents and religious leaders. Because I was born before discipline-enforcement became abuse, we kids were toddlers when we learned that if we attempted to refute anything our parents said, we were likely to be slapped across the face for “talking back” before we actually formed words. Even as we got older, we were to obey their orders, “Because I said so!” They never bothered to explain their reasons, they were always right, and if we dared to defy them, we suffered immediate punitive damages.

When my parents were out of earshot is when my siblings and I argued, yelled, and bickered. Because we all loved to read and use words, we would have made great defense attorneys by the time we were teenagers. Yet we never realized that arguing involved persuasion rather than yelling, pinching, kicking, and smacking. We certainly had no idea that we were not pathetic enough.

When I became a parent myself, I grew up, or so I thought. Paddling with a belt was redefined as a swat across the heavily diapered bottom of my unheeding son and strong-willed daughter, timeouts were invented, and I routinely engaged in  reverse psychology. In direct contrast to my parents, I prided myself on reasonable, rational explanations long before my kids had a clue what I was talking about. But, while I did not punish my children for arguing, I did not teach them how to do it either. Heinrichs, on the other hand, deliberately taught his children to argue.

His textbook is an interesting combination of stories and instruction but because I do not expect you all to read it, I googled him.

According to a blog post, “How to Teach a Child to Argue,” he stopped his five-year-old daughter’s temper tantrum by telling her she was not pathetic enough.

Not pathetic enough? Really? Kicking and screaming and whining are not pathetic?

Not according to Heinrichs and not according to the ancient Greeks who were masters at arguing pathetically and persuasively. Once upon a time, apparently, “pathetic” was a term used in rhetoric, the Greeks’ ancient art of argument. It meant persuasive.

Heinrichs also explains the difference between arguing and fighting. “An argument is good; a fight is not. Whereas the goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent, in an argument you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side.”1

Is it only the Amish who do not learn to argue? Did you know how to argue, either pathetically or otherwise, before you got to college? It’s my observation that most of my neighbors did not either.

Too often, arguing is misunderstood as fighting and is not appreciated. Not many of us, adults or children, even know how to disagree constructively. We are not interested in hearing other people’s point of view. Heinrichs claims that teaching children how to argue does not turn them into “back-sassers” but that it makes them think about somebody else’s point of view.

I wonder how I could get a do-over at parenting. Wouldn’t you rather get your children to willingly do what you want instead of fighting with them?

I wonder whether Heinrichs’ not-pathetic-enough principle would affect neighborhood and street fighting too.


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