up for debate

You know those events where you wish you had a reason not to go but had no real excuse not to?

I stared at my calendar wondering how the hubs and I would sit through three hours watching our youngest son debate.  I racked my brain for places we needed to be and there were none.  We had to go.


During parent conferences when the fifth grade teacher recommended a debate team for our son; we balked.  Although he is the most extroverted of our sons, he does not like public speaking and becomes mute.  The teacher continued to persuade as the hubs and I politely declined; our weekly schedule already full.  As a working parent I would be unable to pick him up at the 4 PM pick-up time; already leaving work early on another day for this same son’s involvment in band.  When the teacher offered to keep our son in his classroom, to accommodate our schedule, we had no reason to decline his offer; should this son choose to join the debate team.  We assumed he would say no.

When the answer was yes we had been surprised.

Over Thanksgiving the son had haphazardly worked on his speech and had no idea what to expect from the practice debate to be held the following week.  We, parents,  found ourselves along the perimeter of the classroom as our son’s teammate presented the proposition side of the debate topic with confidence.  We listened as the opposition presented their side.  Our son was the second speaker for the proposition and we watched him take deep breaths before the judges panel; trying to gather his thoughts.  There were several minutes where he merely stood, the paper beginning to shake in his hands.  It was obvious he was unprepared and only later, would we learn that his team had been at a disadvantage.  In a team of three their third teammate had not shown up and both boys had only been prepared to speak as first speakers.  When the time came for either boy to give a speech, as second or third speakers, they had not prepared anything and gave impromptu speeches; relying on the brief notes they took from their opponents’ remarks.

I leaned into the hubs and he whispered in my direction as the minutes grew uncomfortable.  Should we help him out?  There was nothing we could do.

As a parent it is tough to watch your kids flail, the urge to jump in and save the day and/or make excuses strong.

I leaned heavily into my husband as our son turned to us; the fear in his eyes clear for all to see.  I kept my posture neutral, hoping to look encouraging.  The teammate quietly urged him on.

You can do this.

And with a shuddering breath we watched our son pull himself together to request for the judges to start the time.  He held his head high as he stuttered through phrases.  His allotted time was five minutes and as second speaker his job was to refute the opponents points.  We watched him try to pull ideas together; struggling to find words.  When the signal for the last minute was shown, we saw him try to conclude and he knew he was doing a miserable job.  It was at the very uncomfortable end when I finally let out my breath.   Their team had lost the first round; our son receiving the lowest score.  We watched him acknowledge the critique from the judge; absorbing the words.  He had one more round to go.

debate group

During the intermission we observed the two boys put their heads together to prepare.  In the second round our son gave the first & third speeches, his teammate the one to refute as second speaker.   When our son went to the podium, this time around, he had known what fear and unpreparedness had felt like and pushed through; utilizing his time to make his points, refute the opposition and conclude with a bang.  The boys whispered to each other during the debate, furiously writing notes.  The information and critiques from their first round became actions; as the kids acted upon the remarks from the judges about points of information (POIs) and heckles (pointed comments to refute the main points of a speech) done during the debate.  They learned to modulate their voices, to make prolonged eye contact and exude confidence even though they ad-libbed their points.    When their team was pronounced the winner, the boys were grateful and went to the other side to congratulate them on a good debate.

Those three hours were one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had as a parent.

Though terrifying for him, I was grateful that his lack of preparation had been public and uncomfortable for our son.  It is a feeling he will not soon forget.  It was in the judge’s explanations about speakers, to our child, that the rest of the kids and parents learned:

  • The first speaker presents the points and backs with evidence.
  • The second speaker refutes the opposition’s points and creates doubt for their reasons.
  • The third speaker weighs both sides and tips the scales to conclude that their point of view are the better choice.

The hubs and I were speechless.

There were no words to express the humble joy we got from watching our son push through his fear and conquer it.

Debate team members were required to commit through the first practice debate before being allowed to quit the team.  Our son bounded to us with a smile, deciding to stick with debate.  Learning to improvise is something our kids haven’t had the opportunity to practice.  In a community of helicopter parenting, where we sit at our children’s beck and call, it was a welcome change to have to watch our students do it all on their own.  To pull their ideas together, without adult help. To formulate cogent thoughts in their own words.  They are learning to be better speakers and to advocate for themselves.

That’s all I ever want for my sons.  To say their words and to follow them through.

The following morning we awoke before dawn.  This same son opted to join a local 5K run, again influenced by the teacher above.  Running is not his forte and I had been surprised at his urging to sign up with his school’s group.  We huddled together, our breaths visible in the cold; puffs of whispy air.  It was forty three degrees.


When the mass of runners bunched up at the front, I waved my son off; opting to hang in the middle-of-the pack, jogging at a steady pace with my girlfriend.  At mile one we found him walking alone.  His classmates were off and running and for the next 2.2 miles, we pushed and prodded him to keep going.  Eventually, he ran with a seventh grader and wearily jogged to the finish line.  I had wondered what had possessed this child to sign up for this run in the first place.  Why pay money to run a 5K when you can do it for free?   I jog my trails alone in the early mornings enjoying my solitude.   It was after this thought that I arrived at the reasons for his answer.  It is all about camaraderie.

Charlie tree

In trying to understand this son I was able to resolve a lot of things in my own mind.  I, too, recently felt the sting of being rebuffed; for my words not to be heard.   It was in the experience that I learned boundaries; my resolve strengthening to stick with my issue and follow it through to the end, head high.  My internal debate has run its own course as I present my point, refute the opposition and weigh the sides to reach my conclusion.  Like my son I’ve stammered and flailed.

As he crossed the finish line I was glad that he continues to want to debate and run; even if he’s not good at either one or doesn’t win.  It is in collaboration and camaraderie towards a common goal that brings meaning to our debates and rat races; to the words we say and the paths we walk.  In picking himself back-up, my son reminded me that even when the worst scenario happens, that we have the ability to keep moving forward; for better or for worse.

May you find your words and keep walking forward with confidence.




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