Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
So wrote James Madison when he formulated the Bill of Rights. Madison was initially against the idea of a Bill of Rights, thinking that if rights were laid out, it could be assumed that they were the only rights Americans enjoyed. But he also believed that the American people, not the government, should decide how their country should be run, and the states had made a number of suggested amendments to the Constitution when they had come to ratify it. Madison thought those suggestions should be acknowledged.
Foremost among them was the right to free speech.
“In Madison’s view, a free republic depends ultimately upon public opinion,” political historian Jay Cost explained in an article for the National Review. “A Constitution could divide power this way and that, but in the end it is the people, and only the people, who rule. And for the people to rule wisely, they have to be able to communicate with one another — freely, without fear of reprisal. Thus, freedom of speech and press were not, for Madison, merely God-given rights. They were preconditions for self-government.”
Madison was not the only founding father committed to absolute freedom of speech. In Jefferson’s inaugural address he said: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
America, then, is founded upon public debate and, as Jefferson highlighted, reasoned discussion.
Reasoned, rational discussion and the ability to disagree peacefully are a hallmark of civilized behavior. However, these are learned skills. Unfortunately, they are skills that are not being taught in schools anymore. Happily, as parents we can teach our children those skills at home.
How to teach rational discussion skills
Rational discussion can be taught in any setting; anytime you’re having a conversation with your children you can and should model skills such as turn-taking, polite questioning, keeping calm when discussing difficult topics, and defining the words we’re using so that everyone has a shared understanding of what is being discussed.
However, it’s also a good idea to set aside some time each week to have rational discussions as a family so that children can learn all these skills in a more formal setting. A great place to do this is around the dinner table, but you could also set aside a ‘debate hour’ each week.
1. Begin by picking a topic to be discussed. Heroes of Liberty books can provide inspiration here as they touch on aspects of American and world history that can provide discussion points: affirmative action in Thomas Sowell; the role of motherhood in Amy Coney Barrett; free speech in Rush Limbaugh and so on. Make sure to keep it at a level appropriate for your children’s age.
2. Ask each family member to give their opinion on the topic.
3. Once everyone has done so, open the ‘floor’ to discussion. At this stage, family members can question each other on the opinion given. Try (gently) to get family members to defend their opinions. It is important that children learn to have their opinions challenged without getting upset, or seeing it as a criticism of themselves as a person.
4. Useful questions are: Why do you think that? What do you mean by X? What evidence do you have that supports your opinion? What would make you change your mind? The person being asked is then given the opportunity to answer those questions.
5. Try to make sure that everyone’s opinion is challenged and defended, both adult and children alike. You need to model both sides of the conversation for children to learn how to discuss.