My friends who have kids sometimes ask if the lessons I teach in my Persuasion classes also apply to little tykes. Can we apply classic rules of rhetoric to convince kids to do (or not do) things? Can we apply Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric to five-year-olds? Truth be told, I haven’t studied it in detail. But, as a father, and now grandfather, I do have some thoughts. I might even claim to have good ethos (in the Ciceronian sense). Here are some thoughts:
Nobody likes to be talked down to — as a speaker or writer, you should never imply that you are smarter than your audience. If you want to degrade an opponent’s ethos, tell the audience that the opponent thinks he’s better than they are. (This technique is known as attributed belittlement). The same concept applies to kids — only it’s more literal. You’re taller than they are. Get down to their level. Speak to them face to face. They don’t like to be talked down to.
Pathos trumps logos — we know that adults make decisions more based on emotion than on logic. Doubly true for kids. Start by recognizing, and validating, their emotions.
Concession-and-shift — the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. If a kid is throwing a tantrum, start by conceding that she’s right. I call it the “ain’t it awful” maneuver. First you get down to their level and say something like, “I just hate it when my ice cream falls in the sand box and I don’t get to eat it. Ain’t it awful?” You may need to repeat it several times. Pretty soon, they’ll realize that you’re agreeing with them. Then (and only then) you can start talking about next steps.
Decorum is the art of meeting expectations – what does your kid expect from you? If you don’t fulfill these expectations, you create cognitive dissonance. Your kid’s not sure he can trust what you’re saying. You can talk about anything but, first, you have to act like your kid expects you to act. You can change your kid’s expectations, but it takes time. Don’t try it in the middle of a meltdown.
Social proof is incredibly important — how do you get a kid to eat broccoli? Not by logic. Not by lying — “You’ll grow up big and strong”. Put him with other kids who like broccoli. When another kid says, “Can I have your broccoli?”, your kid will say, “No, that’s mine!” By the way, as an adult, your value as social proof to a kid is approximately zero.
Speak to their commonplaces — a commonplace is simply a shared belief. Conservative commonplaces tend to revolve around liberty. Liberal commonplaces tend to revolve around justice. Kids’ commonplaces tend to revolve around … well, you know your kid. What does she believe? Speak to that, not to what you believe. As Will Rogers said, “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes. Not with what you like.”