How to Argue With Your 12-Year-Old

By: Michael Kaplan

“I’m not going to guitar lesson.”

Why argue at all? Because pre-adolescence is a candy-colored swirl of hormone spurts and murderous scowls and, from time to time, we must open the door to our jolly friend, reality. Plus, it’s not like you’re winning any arguments with your wife these days.

Potential gambits crowd the mind. Fine, you owe your teacher sixty dollars…That’s it, I’m unplugging cable…If you practiced a little more, you wouldn’t be afraid to go. All of these have their pitfalls, chiefly the onslaught of premature tears that lure your better half to throw her weight, tag-team style, behind the opposition. Best to take a more conservative tack.

“You’re going.”

“Why? Why do I have to?”

A simple test. You had this discussion last month. Do you remember the excellent answer you gave? Unlikely. Rather than dither and give your daughter any sense of momentum, slap the ball right back. When in doubt, change the ground beneath her feet.

“Because it’s your job. We all have jobs in this family.”

“I don’t want this job.”

You are no longer talking about guitar lessons but metaphorical employment. Don’t get overconfident.

“We all do jobs we don’t want. I don’t want to cook your dinner, but I’m going to when we come back.”

“Fine. I’ll eat at McDonald’s.”

She has changed the ground beneath your feet. Show no fear.

“No, McDonald’s is crap and eating crap is not going to solve anything unless they have a special on McMusic Lessons.”

“You’re so mean.”

“I’m not trying to be mean.”

“You let Jason skip soccer all the time!”

This is a classic ruse, known as the sororital split. By introducing at least one sibling, your daughter has increased the odds in her favor. There is now a 30% chance you will take the bait and argue the merits of Jason, allowing a different child to go on trial. Carefully choose your response at this fork. The obvious “This is not about Jason, this is about you!” will automatically trigger the martyred rejoinder, “That’s right, you never think he does ANYTHING wrong.” To keep your child off-balance, allow a little poetic license.

“Jason almost died this morning.”


“Ask him when you get back from guitar.”

Admittedly, a bald-faced lie. But you’ve painstakingly built a foundation of logic and irony and, well, a creative parent is a healthy parent. (If personal integrity remains a priority, skip to the next step.)

“Why do we have to go TODAY? It’s such a bad time for me.”

It is important to remember that you and you alone are the repository of your child’s words and deeds and thus the sole curator of glaring contradictions that will come in handy right about now.

“We already moved this lesson so you could go to Aubrey’s party.”

“Why is that my fault?”

Here we have a celebrated dialectic stratagem known as the Mazzini offense (so named for Ellen Mazzini who, at the age of nine, wrangled shrimp cocktail and chocolate milk for dinner six nights in a row through a series of cunning, accusatory tantrums that left her parents guilt-stricken for decades). This tactic draws you into a position of de facto tyranny and presupposes your own desperate need to defend your political record. An excellent time to adopt the Far-Eastern method of parenting and turn your daughter’s force against her.

“Why do you act like it’s your fault?”

“Ha ha ha.”

This, of course, is the infamous Ha ha ha. Press on.

“Look, you chose guitar. You were the one who said you wanted to switch from piano to guitar, that you thought that would be a better instrument for you.”

“Yeah, I KNOW.”

Notice the use of the PtON, or Preteen Omniscient Narrator: the haughty tone that asserts there is nothing on God’s green earth that’s going to catch her unawares or weaken her resolve. The good news: this is often the last gasp before surrender.

“Well now that you’ve made that commitment I need to help you keep it. And honor it. Otherwise it’s meaningless — and we are not meaningless people.” [Warning: Once your child is fourteen this is a disastrous path to take.]

“Fine. You have to give me five dollars.”

A naked act of desperation. Your daughter needs something to claim as a partial victory. Choose your terms carefully.

“You can have five dollars if you NEED five dollars for something RIGHT NOW. You don’t get five dollars for going to a lesson you’re supposed to go to anyway. Otherwise you can give me five dollars for driving you there.”

“Then I’ll hitchhike.”

“And you’ll be grounded for the rest of the year. Which will certainly give you time to practice.”

“MOMMMMMM! Dad’s being mean!!!”

Game. Set. Match. At this point, I’m afraid you’re on your own.


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