It’s that magical season when families gather, tension builds and arguments flare. No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the time in America between election and inauguration – the “mean season.” I haven’t taken a poll, but judging by social media, our four children supported four different presidential candidates, and none of our kids backed the winner.
We’re not planning a family reunion this Christmas, and that’s probably for the best. While their shared “anyone-but-Trump” sentiment might maintain equilibrium through the appetizers, by the time we hit the salad course, teeth would be grinding. Their love of dessert would be the only thing holding them back from an all-out food fight. (It makes a mother sentimental for the days when the only forces that collided at our table were the vegetarians and the carnivores.)
How does it happen that four children raised by the same parents turn out so differently? That’s a question that will have you planting your face in the mashed potatoes, to no satisfactory end. It’s better to ask how your family can navigate the mean season following the most bizarre and rancorous election in recent memory. The losers are alarmed on a scale rarely seen in American politics. Religious and ethnic minorities and LGBT communities fear for their futures. And even the winners are feeling hostile and disrespected. How is a host supposed to arrange the place cards for that Christmas dinner?
It helps to see political differences as an extension of the dynamics we already accept in our families. Everybody backs a different football team and enjoys the rivalry. Your daughter is an engineer and your son is an artist. One child builds orphanages in Mexico and another is a hedge-fund manager. You celebrate those differences and, with any luck, your children have a healthy curiosity and respect for each other. Any holiday gathering that strays into politics can be tempered by your brief acknowledgment that a family like yours is fortunate to have such diversity. It beats dinner with the Stepford Wives any day. Take pride in the fact that your adult children care enough about their world to have opinions.
Don’t take your children’s politics personally. It has nothing to do with you. Their political views are less a result of your parenting and more a result of their careers, their friends, their education, their urban or rural lifestyle, their income level, their family needs and their generational conditioning. Your idealist offspring is probably still “feeling the Bern.” Your child who just got fired because the factory moved offshore sees Trump as the savior. Your daughter was counting on the first woman president to be a role model for your granddaughters. With the superior wisdom that comes from age, you may be tempted to dismiss their views as shallow or self-serving. You would be wrong. Their opinions are appropriate to their age and circumstances, just as your opinions are to yours.
Nevertheless, you have to be the grownup when the debate goes south. Set rules and insist on mutual respect when your family gathers. When our children were young, we carried a three-foot wooden spoon on road trips. We called it the “insult spoon,” and it rested on the dashboard. Whenever things got rowdy in the back seat, I would swing the spoon wildly over my shoulder while the kids bobbed and weaved to avoid a smack. Your adult children are beyond corporal punishment, but they must never be beyond courtesy in your home.
A political discussion is no different from any lively family debate. If you show respect, your adult children will respond in kind. You do this by asking questions (“Explain why you feel that way.”); by apologizing when you offend (“Sorry. I didn’t realize what that issue means to you.”); and by being open to new ideas (“I never thought of it that way. Tell me more.”) Here’s the hard part; those questions must be heart-felt, not simply setups for your next point.
Try to steer the discussion away from polls and statistics. If this election has taught us anything, it’s that there is a study, survey or expert to prove every point of view, and much of what we see on the internet is false or skewed. (I see new life for our old wooden spoon, to wield against the child who spouts an internet rumor.)
Focus on the future, not the past. Clinton’s emails, Trump’s insults and the shortcomings of third-party candidates are all yesterday’s news. Your job has always been to encourage your children to follow their dreams. Now that means encouraging them to continue supporting the causes that spark their passions. Imagine a stimulating dinner conversation in which each child brainstorms about how they can make a difference in the new year, no matter what party is in power. Some are already deeply embroiled in the service of a cause, including your sons and daughters in the military. Holiday gatherings are a time to celebrate that. Military families have a unique eye on the world of politics and know better than most how to respect and protect political discourse.
The old adage to avoid conversations about religion and politics makes for some pretty dull parties. However, there are worst-case scenarios where the views of your child are so offensive that they are best left unspoken. If Johnny is a white supremacist or Sally is an anarchist who blows up things, it’s hard to imagine weaving their views into a civil dinner discussion. Steer clear of their politics in a group setting and save them for one-on-one chats when it’s harder to lob insults.
Above all, tell your children that family trumps politics. Long after presidents have faded, family will remain. Passions may run high and the stakes may be alarming. But nothing that happens over your holiday table should ever send a child out the door feeling isolated or angry enough to never return.
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