Our nation has a problem with the way we speak to one another. Fire and hatred are spewed at every opportunity and the art of listening has been completely forsaken. While it’s easy to blame those in power, I believe the solution hits closer to home. An old maxim tells us to keep religion and politics away from the dinner table, but maybe that’s been the issue all along. No one ever learned how to deal with differing opinions or ideas in a safe space, so when confronted with them now, it seems vitriol is the only option.
Civility takes practice, and if we don’t talk about politics in our home, our children will learn how to engage via Twitter and sound bites. They are not sophisticated enough to understand fake news, doctored images or quotes taken out of context. If we don’t take the time to teach them, we run the risk of kids who believe everything they see and assign validity based on the passion of the response or the popularity of an image, pushing truth to the back burner.
As parents, we have the opportunity to change the trajectory of our nation, not just by running for office or by going to the polls, but by teaching our children how to politically engage by thinking, listening, seeing multiple sides of an issue, and then agreeing or disagreeing with facts and with grace.
We have a responsibility to quell the divisiveness and mean spirit that surrounds almost every important discussion. Parents should be less concerned with indoctrinating their children with only one side or a narrow view of the world, and instead teach them to think, feel, collaborate and look for solutions. We can do this by bucking the system and by bringing humanity back to politics. We can hold our judgmental words and refuse to make those who disagree with us the enemy.
What if, instead of presenting only one side of a debate that echoed our own political agenda, we educated our kids on issues and options? What if we acknowledged that all problems are complicated and that no solution is perfect? What if we let them sit in the middle, in the gray, with all the emotion and reality that accompanies that uncomfortable spot? What if we told them that it is okay for their hearts to hurt but their minds to question what would truly be a fair and viable solution? What if we encouraged them, from young ages, to consistently think and work on creative solutions that appease both their goodness and practicality? What if compromise was a recurring option?
As we sit around the table, we can change the conversation. Let’s move from “how was your day” chit chat and device dominated dinners and create opportunities to model thoughtful and healthy disagreement on issues that matter. Most kids have opinions, so give them a chance to voice and work through them. Start young with something simple or local…ask about online school or recess rules, then move to national discussions or enlightening studies that will open their minds and allow them to decide how they feel personally about important issues. Let them practice. And when you disagree, and I hope you do, do it well.
Show them how to listen, really listen. Help them fact check their own opinions and the opinions of others so that truth is paramount. Offer stories of people who legitimately feel differently than they do and have good reasons for it. Remind them of how glad we are that people feel passionately about different issues because no one can do it all and good causes need advocates. Share your own ideas respectfully. Admit when you are wrong or uninformed. Question them and their assumptions in a way that allows them to dig deeper but isn’t insulting. Help them realize that discussions are not boxing matches with a winner declared after each round, but an opportunity to engage and learn.
Teach them that it is okay to walk away and still be conflicted, undecided, or miles apart. It’s possible to disagree and still love and even like each other. It’s possible to change an opinion, even one you fought for, with humility. There is nothing wrong with flip-flopping on an issue; in fact, we all should. As we learn and accumulate experience, our view of the world changes. Evolving is a sign of an emotionally and mentally mature person who isn’t afraid to look beyond what he or she has always known or thought to be true. When we know better, we do and choose better. Let’s encourage that.
Perhaps most importantly, we must show our children how to put people above politics. That kind, generous, and intelligent people all see the world differently, and that is what makes life so beautiful. Remind them that their favorite aunt has a Make America Great sign in her yard and their incredible basketball coach has a Biden 2020 bumper sticker. Show them that the desires of most good people are the same but their understanding of how to get there is what makes things a bit rocky. Share with them that sometimes people don’t know what we know so we will have to teach with patience, compassion and grace. Talk about the real whys behind the decisions people make and the honest facts and life experiences that have led someone to the opinions they hold, not the carefully crafted narratives concocted by those who want us to hate each other. Remind them that voting for a particular person is a complicated decision for most and often we aren’t sure of all the reasons that led them to their choice.
Expose your children to great speeches and leaders from both parties, red and blue foibles, and the magic that happens when people from each side figure out how to come together. Forget about helping them choose a party. Give them experiences that allow them to understand what is really important to them and what issues they are willing to engage in and fight for, and then reality check them with the cost and work that it takes to make those ideals come to pass. Through the process they will come to know where they stand.
What if we could raise a generation capable of repairing a political system that is so broken most people have lost all faith in what has always been an international government beacon? What if they could undo the mess that has been made and rebuild America as the collaborative, diverse, dynamic country it was destined to be?
For the last few years our country has been at a stalemate with almost no progress except that of a wider chasm in the middle. Let’s raise children who can close that gap, who can innovate, progress and help us wade through the impossible. We must forget about the fear that so quickly comes when we think about our kids choosing a path that is very different from our own, because if we teach them to think, to listen, to work, to love, who better to hold hands with across the aisle?