During my years as a minister, I often did premarital counseling. I liked it because I believe in strong marriages, and one good way to build them is to counsel young couples about what makes a marriage work. I spent a lot of time on communication: how to get your point across clearly and with the right tone of voice, how to understand your spouse’s personality and speaking style, even how not to overwhelm each other with too many words.
During that time, I came to realize that rhetoric, the ability to speak well, isn’t just an outdated educational ornament but rather something we use every day. With that in mind, this article is my somewhat light-hearted attempt to help us realize that we use rhetoric even in our family life. (This was written before Bill Cosby’s dark side was revealed, but I hope you’ll forgive my references to some of his statements. Despite his flaws, hopefully, he still can make us laugh.)
This is part I of II, and these two articles are a preamble to a series on parenting. Strong marriages demand not only good communication but also good parenting. I will post the first of seven articles on parenting during the week of November 13. You will find these articles on The Lazarus Chronicles blog (www.wordsdr.com/tlc).
A Father Counsels His Sons How to Use Rhetoric in Family Life
To my sons,
As you move into the next phase of your lives, I want to advise you on the importance of rhetoric. Defined as the art of speaking well or more specifically the art of persuasion, it lends itself to many aspects of family life. Since the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, words are the primary tool. You’ll notice how quickly that children learn to use words to get their way; this is rhetoric. Although some ancient writers admitted that rhetoric could be found everywhere: in the courts, in politics, even in the home, they didn’t offer advice for mothers and fathers on how to rhetorically manage household affairs.
Children have an uncanny knack for knowing some tricks even the ancient philosophers didn’t know. Although one ancient teacher, Quintilian, believed that rhetoric and oratory should be pursued because the ability to speak and reason is inherent in the human and therefore a good thing, when you hear your children speak, you’ll at times be more likely to agree with a more modern philosopher, Bill Cosby, that children’s ability to speak and reason is an indication of brain damage. He finds this a suitable answer for the absurdities and persuasive tactics that come from the mouth of these little word machines. I just tend to think that children are born lobbyists.
THE CREDIBILITY FACTOR
To Aristotle credibility was one of the first elements necessary for effective persuasion. Quintilian and Plato said much the same thing, “true eloquence could be possessed only by a good and just man.” How much more important could this be with little eyes soaking in all that they see and little ears ready to repeat what you told the salesman on the phone who called for the tenth time. Yes, I am suggesting that you will need to be the example and have the credibility to demand of them only what you are willing to do yourself.
For years fatherhood has operated on the grand assumption that kids should “do what I say, not what I do.” Excuse me, but did I just hear the ancients rolling over in their graves? This tantalizing rationale falls flattest when your children are sitting at the table and one of them asks, “Daddy what does _____ mean?” After choking on your food, you will want to know where they heard that. “You and your friends kept saying it when you were watching football last week,” they might respond. On second thought you don’t want to know where they heard that.
And furthermore do not labor under another grand assumption that young adults often say, “I’ll never do what my parents did!” Children see, hear, and speak things you don’t want them to see, hear, and speak. They will do what you do even when they grow up. Credibility counts.
Since dinner is often the time when families talk a lot, think about it as a rhetorical classroom. I remember the night we first fed you sweet potatoes. You refused to eat them. We tried to appeal to you with one of the first tools of rhetoric: logic. In this case we believed we had good reasons for eating them. “Sweet potatoes are good for you,” we reasoned. All appeals to your health didn’t work so we tried another means of persuasion. “But it’s a sweet potato,” thinking of course that you would see the logic of eating something with word sweet in the title. We even pointed out the sugar and marsh mellows in the recipe; it was more like dessert. No deal. Logic got us nowhere.
Then there was the broccoli soup. Your rationale for not eating the soup was, “I can’t eat this because it’s too ugly.” Seriously, did Aristotle and his ilk ever imagine the logic of a child? Persuading children to eat the right foods does involve the use of logic, but I wouldn’t depend on it too much when the taste buds are involved. Had I known more about rhetoric at the time, I might have realized you were using it against me. A good persuader can use aesthetic qualities inherent in his subject matter to appeal to his listeners. Typical parent that I was I failed to appreciate your perceived lack of beauty in broccoli soup.
The Roman philosopher Cicero noted that one of the causes where rhetoric should function well was the judicial arena. What better context to discuss the issue of justice than when desserts were served. I remember how quickly you and your brother spotted injustice: “How come his chocolate cake is bigger than mine?” I tried to make you face reality with by appealing to a truth you needed to know: “life isn’t always fair.” Evidently the appeal of chocolate cake prevented you from subscribing to this philosophical truth. If you ever wondered how the notion of the “fair share” got into vogue, perhaps you should look no further than to realize that when they were children some adults didn’t get the same size piece of cake as their siblings.
Tune in next week for Part II.
© 2023 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC and The Lazarus Chronicles