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October 23, 2018
It’s not like we needed the recent supreme court hearings to know that things right now are super-tense.
Still, those hearings certainly didn’t help.
By my count, this is roughly the tenth time in the last three years I’ve been asked to write something about how parents can keep their heads in these trying political times.
No, I don’t want us all to agree. That would be a nightmare. We NEED our disagreements. Our nation was founded this way. Thomas Paine himself was certain that we got most things wrong.
But what’s happening now is something new. I’ve checked in with my friends in political science and history and they all note some version of the same warning. There’s never been a time like this in modern American history.
No one, it seems, is happy. Everyone, it seems, is mad. The gunpowder that keeps the emotional fuse lit is the near-constant media coverage from views and opposing views. You can agree with current leadership or you can disagree. You can hate the current state of affairs or you can love it. It doesn’t matter. No matter what, people are just plain angry.
By constantly screaming at each other, we rob our children of an actual childhood.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t involve our children in current debates. Few things are better for an adolescent brain than to practice careful, civil, and thoughtful disagreement. That’s how we train our kids to prepare for the real debates that they’ll have when they take over for the adults. The adults who seem intent, at least these days, on yelling more than discussing.
What I find most alarming is how hard we have to work on remaining civil with each other during the new “normal” of expected incivility.
It occurs to me: If it’s hard for me to stay civil with friends with whom I disagree, and if I’ve had these friends since before I could tie my shoes, then it must be really, really hard for kids to make sense of all of this chest-pounding that we adults seem unable to stop. Moreover, it must be even more difficult for kids who happen to disagree with their peers, or their school administrations, or especially their parents. Or—and this is even more likely—it must be absolute torture for kids who are trying to figure out what it is they believe, or, heaven forbid, to change their minds.
What a mess we’ve created for our children. We’re not doing them any favors by modeling this kind of angry intolerance.
Some things are slam dunks. Brutality is bad. Sexual assault is bad. I don’t think I’m out on a limb when I say that there’s not a lot of room for civility surrounding topics like these. But that’s not the issue. Reasonable dissenters on both sides of whatever aisles we’ve created agree on the basics, and it’s how we go about to addressing these basics that’s bothering me.
For the sake of our children and their future, we have got to do better. It’s time for us to behave.
As much as I wish we didn’t need it… as much as I wish I didn’t need it… I’d like to suggest some rules for civil ideological engagement. These rules apply whether we agree or disagree. These rules apply whether we think we’re on the same side or whether we’re trying to make what feels like a desperately important opposing point. These rules even apply if we’re trying to change our own minds.
These rules, by the way, are based on neurobiology and child development (though, I feel like I shouldn’t have to justify them by saying that research supports them). We seem to have lost the fundamental ability to get along. That’s a terrible legacy for our kids to inherit.
Smart people can disagree. Just saying that sentence out loud helps. And you have to say it out loud for it to work. Practice saying, “This is a subject about which really smart people often disagree.” Without this caveat, we equate lack of agreement with lack of clear thinking, or worse, with lack of intelligence. That’s not fair to you or to the person with whom you’re disagreeing. It also changes the subject away from the topic you’re trying to discuss—not to mention the fact that calling someone stupid is juvenile and unproductive.
If your kids find themselves in the midst of a disagreement, help them to try on the other guy’s shoes. Literally say to your child, “I wonder what’s it like to be in their shoes?” Make them slow down and imagine why the other person feels so strongly. Is it religious? Is it breaking from their parents? Is it a reluctance to agree with their parents? Is it based on tradition? This practice, ironically, can help to make things less personal. This exercise promotes humility. If you can imagine what it’s like to be the other person, then you’re less likely to attack that person and more likely to argue the ideas that are being contested.
Don’t shout. This is especially important among teens in the midst of a disagreements. When teens disagree, their brains run towards a fight. That instinct to fight, the basest instinct that our conscience brains permit, is much more likely in the under-developed adolescent brain. Shouting triggers the desire to fight, and once the fight begins, either through more shouting or even physical altercation, the civility of debate is dead. There’s evidence that this is really bad for teen brains. Help your teen to practice staying calm, and note that they’ll need to stay calm especially when they feel most like blowing up. In other words, don’t do what all the adults in politics seem to be doing. Be better than those adults.
If the argument is at a standstill, learn to put it aside. Contrary to what our leaders seem intent on modeling, it is possible to disagree and remain cordial or—gasp—to be actual friends. Look at George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, in this current climate, the benefits of befriending folks who disagree often gets entirely lost.
Get active. Constant arguing is bad for lots of reasons, but perhaps most detrimental is the feeling kids get that they’re powerless to effect change. If the view your teen holds is civil, get him or her in touch with developmentally appropriate political movements. This promotes affirmation. Otherwise, your child might think that their only recourse is to argue. That’s a developmental dead end.
Look. If our leaders won’t show us how to behave, then we have to show them. That includes showing our kids how to get along even when we don’t agree. It’s time for us all to act like adults. Otherwise, how in the world will our kids grow up?