Last week, on a road trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, my boys began arguing.
They started somewhere around the Space Needle and continued on until we hit the ever-present traffic in Tacoma.
I can’t recall what they were arguing about. I do recall making a threat about never taking them on another road trip for the rest of their lives if I heard another peep!
Or something to that effect.
Turns out, I should have let them continue. A recent column in the New York Times, "Kids, would you please start fighting?" highlighted the importance of argument in fostering creativity, particularly in a family.
As Adam Grant writes, creativity is spawned from debate and disagreement. He quotes that psychologist Robert Albert, who found through research that “highly creative adults often grow up in families full of tension.” As Albert put it “the creative person-to-be comes from a family that is anything but harmonious, one with a ‘wobble.’”
Perhaps I identify with this because I grew up in a “wobbly” family. At times we resembled the von Trapps, all dancing and singing around the house. Other times we were straight out of "Wuthering Heights." My older brother Ryan and I were great friends, but we could bicker with the best of them. During one argument, I stuck orange bubble gum in his hair. Another time, I got so fed up I made him stop the car on the freeway so I could walk home.
However, none of our disagreements compare to the Great Quiche Debate, circa 2011. Two of my brothers, both excellent cooks, got into an argument about the role of onions in cooking a quiche. My brother Matt thought the onions should be nice and chunky, dropped raw into the egg mixture. Ryan, who loathes the texture of onions, wanted them either sautéed first or pulverized to oblivion.
What made this argument memorable is the level to which it escalated. Family ties were almost severed over an onion.
I can’t recall how the situation resolved itself, but rest assured my brothers are great friends. In fact, my siblings are some of my very best friends. We gather often, and when we do there is both harmony and debate.
The Wright brothers routinely argued with one another. It helped them produce their best results, Grant writes. Walt Disney’s family was filled with tension. James Cash Penney, founder of JCPenney stores, grew up in a family where his father led lively debates as evening entertainment.
Of course, we all know that incessant family fights aren’t constructive. As the psychologist Albert writes, creativity flourishes in families that are “tense but secure.”
I remember hearing years ago that it’s important for children to see their parents disagree, as long as they also see the way in which they resolve their arguments. As Grant writes, a study of young children found that they felt more emotionally safe if their parents argued constructively.
“When parents disagree with each other, kids learn to think for themselves. They discover that no authority has the monopoly on truth. They become more tolerant of ambiguity. Rather than conforming to others’ opinions, they come to rely on their own independent judgment,” he writes.
With two boys on the school debate team and another who studies classical argument and fallacy, our house often resembles the House of Commons. As a parent this can get exhausting. However, I understand that my children are learning to form opinions and create their own world views. Instead of trying to resolve every tussle, it’s important for me to allow these arguments to take shape. Disagreement needn’t always be equated with dysfunction.
We have basic rules in our family: You can argue an idea, but never make a personal attack. You can’t make blanket generalizations, such as: That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. You must be willing to present both sides of an issue. Finally, when someone presents a new idea or opinion, you must listen respectfully and begin and end your response with encouragement.
As we gather for the holidays with family, go to work with bull-headed people, wrestle bedtime with a feisty toddler, or go head-to-head with our spouse over parenting styles, it is good to remember the power of disagreement.
This is more than just making quiche from an onion. We may be helping to invent the next flying machine.