Navigating friendships and raising children in the age of political division

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Growing up in a military household, traveling the world and nightly news discussions around the dinner table bred a love of civics and debate. Years later, my husband and I have a family of our own. Raising a 10, 12, and 16-year-old in the middle of a negative political atmosphere is difficult. I consider myself a Christian center-left individual (although I dislike labels), but it helps to understand someone when you see where they are coming from. Like millions of other Americans, I have close friends and family members who are complete opposites of myself politically. We are transitioning through a difficult time in our history, but we need coping tools for ourselves, our children, and our friendships to last because we can rise out of the divisions and become stronger.

R.E.A.L.: Respect, Engage, Appreciate, Listen

As parents, we want our children to emulate ideals we have brought to the table. Since 2016, our kids have heard and felt our political discussions in real time. As they get older, they want to be a part of that discussion. How does an adult bring them in and engage constructively? First, by allowing them the decency to be heard, engaged with, and part of the larger discussion. There is a natural tendency for us to want our children to be on “our” side of the political atmosphere. I don’t pretend to be perfect; I know I have slipped up in the past, and my passion has gotten the better of me. I have regrets for things I have posted and things I have said but ultimately, I have grown from my mistakes and poor judgments. This is where my Christianity comes into play. I need to remind myself that humility is key. Admitting fault and asking for forgiveness for slights. Not everyone has to follow being a Christian to follow these ideals; in my case, sometimes I need that reminder.

On the issue of engaging with family members and friends, when we are heading to a gathering, we explain respect first and always. When we know that there may be uncomfortable political discussions, we place responsibility on ourselves to explain why we don’t “go there.” It’s difficult as an actively political-minded adult to stop a trigger moment. Imagine how hard it is when you are a child or teen in that moment. Even more so, a 16-year-old teen on the Autism spectrum. It is overwhelming and devastating to see it unfold and feel you have no say in calming the environment.

I am a student of history. George Washington was in my eyes, the perfect example for teaching children and adults the value of middle ground and listening to others. He wasn’t a saint but a real, tangible American ideal of stoicism, patriotism, loyalty, and leadership under stressful times. Washington always strove to do better by his soldiers, by his family, by his political counterparts. The gentleman from Virginia didn’t want our country to devolve into cliques or political parties. This was his warning to our future American selves in his final address to the nation. I don’t want to equate today’s political environment with war; sometimes it feels like we are headed there today.

Washington isn’t the only Founding Father or example for us to follow. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s friendship frayed and exploded during a contentious election, and the effects were lasting and hurtful to both men. I use their life stories as a cautionary tale and one to be revered. If today’s political toxicity infiltrates my discussion with a Conservative friend or someone of a different political leaning, Adams and Jefferson’s love for each other prevails in my mind. Is it worth a lifetime of alienation for yourself, for your family members, and even for your children’s?

Our children in America today need to learn math, science, reading, and English as well as play sports, music, and create art. Don’t stop there. Our duty as parents also is to teach the next generation their citizenship duties as well. Let’s get R.E.A.L.:

  • Respect those you don’t agree with. 

  • Engage when you can. 

  • Appreciate where another is coming from. 

  • Listen – seriously slow down, take a deep breath and please, listen.

American patriotism is in all of us, and our children need to form a love of debate, history, and politics. Hear out your 16-year-old when they tell you their frustrations about a social discussion that erupts into warring factions in their English class. Listen to your 12-year-old when they tell you they were sad or confused about the election. Engage with your 10-year-old when they ask why and how you voted. I tell my kids who I voted for and why it’s important to research federal, state, and local politicians. There are so many tools available today that weren’t available when I first registered to vote. Show your children where they can navigate to do their diligence in picking those people who are supposed to represent their interests.

Understand that it isn’t a sin to turn on the television at dinner time and discuss news of the day. My family did every single day. We watched ABC News together, and there were plenty of debates after the credits rolled. Don’t shy away from deep discussions. Usually, it was my Dad and my brother on one side, and my Mom and me on the other. Sometimes those discussions were about school zones, terrorism, abortion and foreign policy. At the end of the day, we didn’t always agree but we loved each other and still do.

It’s okay to shut down a political discussion with a close friend or a family member by saying: 

“I don’t agree”

Move on to something you can agree with. I know the feeling we all have in our stomach when the uncomfortable moment creeps into our dialogue. It’s okay to hear them out and for our children to see that moment unfold. I try every day to open the dialogue with my kids on the way home from school, asking about their day and how they navigated the playground or the classroom. They are open to airing their frustrations and asking for help when they feel like everything went south despite their best efforts.

I am not perfect. I am a suburban American Mom who carpools kids and volunteers on field trips and in the classrooms. I am given in to moments of delivering an impassioned speech in the car on the way home from school from time to time. I am also deeply invested in the news of the day, the politics of our nation, and to those who deliver that information. One of the ideals I most cherish about navigating the world was by my high school journalism teacher. She always reminded us to seek out multiple sources for our information, verify our sources, and this has given me a tool that I have pass on to my children. The only social media account I currently am engaged with is Instagram because I wanted to dump the toxicity of Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat from my life. We can all choose for ourselves how and where we gather our information. I choose to find it through Reuters, the Associated Press, to watch all different networks, and to read.

The home I grew up in was and still is a policy-debating and social issue-discussing home. When I drop by with the kids and my husband for a cookout with Mom and Dad, we discuss what is happening in the world. We are engaged at childhood, middle-age, old age, and everything between. My parents discuss with their grandkids just like they did with my brother and me. It is a blessing in my mind that a multi-generational activity is stimulating their personalities and growing their capability to be flexible for the next generation.

We have forgotten moments of unity in America today. We have forgotten moments of humility in America today. We should never forget our history, we should never forget that we can debate, we can differ, we can strive always to be better. Our kids and our friends, our neighbors, our communities deserve an engaged discussion minus the social media accounts but rather in one on one moments. Set your table today for the next generation of intelligent, passionate Americans to discuss why, how, and if we can reach for bipartisanship and respect for one another. It all starts at home.