Over the past couple years, political discourse has steadily devolved. Consider the nature of the dialogue your children may be exposed to on any given day. The most prevalent voices can be heard bitterly attacking the other side and then pronouncing their own superiority. There doesn’t seem to be any talk at all aimed at understanding alternate viewpoints and finding common ground. Worthy examples for children to emulate are few and far between.
The typical political discussion, if it is a discussion at all, is a showcase of fallacious reasoning and combative rhetoric. Partisans confine themselves to echo chambers on social media. There, unconstrained by the nuances of their rivals’ viewpoints, they are free to cultivate oversimplifications, misconceptions, and straw men. They use these poorly devised arguments to mock and demonize their opposition. Rather than being ashamed of such dishonest narratives, they proclaim them loudly and righteously, all the while congratulating themselves for being so unassailably correct.
Respect for alternative viewpoints has fallen out of fashion. Instead of objectively assessing any differing opinions, advocates for a given issue often treat dissenters with ridicule or dismissiveness. Thoughtful consideration has given way to clever quips and nasty retorts. As a result, political exchanges are often heated debates that result in all participants feeling offended, and no minds ever being changed.
What does this lack of civility teach our children about how to have constructive dialogue? What does it say about us adults that this is what society has come to? And how can we keep our children grounded in a world that increasingly turns to sensationalist tactics to make a point?
We can start by modeling healthy and constructive political discussions in the home. I offer two simple guidelines for political discussions with children:
Cover the Facts
Share Your Why
Cover the facts so that you have enough information to serve as a basis for discussion. Share your why so that your children understand how you apply your underlying principles, or beliefs and values, to the facts to arrive at your political position. And of course, encourage your children to apply their own beliefs and values to the facts to arrive at their own political positions.
If only the adults of the world would prescribe to these guidelines, we would have a more constructive political climate. We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves and teach our children. When they are the adults, maybe they will do better than we did.
Cover the Facts
Within each of us is a fact-finder and a narrative confirmer. The fact finder likes to think, to uncover alternate perspectives, to explore gray areas, and to see the full picture. The fact finder is nourished by information, context, and rationale. The fact finder will grow, connect to others, and become enlightened.
The narrative confirmer likes to be right, to feel smart, to vent anger, and is satisfied by partial context. The narrative confirmer is nourished by insults, logical fallacies, and panel discussions stacked with ringers and foils. The narrative confirmer will entrench himself in existing positions, cut himself off from different-minded others, and be kept in the dark.
It takes more effort to nourish the fact finder—it is harder work, at least in the short term. Yet it should be clear that the fact finder experiences better long-term outcomes. So which one grows stronger, the fact finder or the narrative confirmer? It is like the story of the two wolves within each of us, one bad and one good. The one that grows stronger is the one that you feed.
You can feed your child’s inner fact finder (and your own as well) by being like a news reporter. Not the kind of news reporter we have today, but the kind from days past—who reports information, and who could be trusted to deliver unbiased facts. Use the five W’s and an H: what, who, why, when, where, and how.
What was said or done, and what has the reaction been to it?
Who said or did it?
When did this happen? Is it a recent event or a part of history?
Where did this happen? What is the relevance of this particular place, its history, and its people?
Why did they say or do it? With what motives—according to them, not their opponents—did they say or do it?
How? What tactics did they use?
Strive to share all the relevant facts, especially the ones that may be unfriendly to your position. After all, we do not want to indoctrinate our children with our conclusions, but rather allow them to reach their own conclusions.
Children need a safe place to learn how to think for themselves about important issues, to apply critical analysis, and to ask questions. So provide that safe space for them by thinking through tough issues with them, entertaining their challenges to your account of the facts, and answering their many questions.
Answering their questions is where you may need to research additional facts. It is also where the real discussion happens. It is where you have a chance to express your own opinions, and find out about your child’s opinions.
Share Your Why
Once you cover the facts, the next step is to translate them into actions and desired outcomes. For this, you need to view the facts through the lens of your beliefs and values. Do you know your core beliefs and values?
You may have beliefs and values that favor individual liberty, national security, caring for the disadvantaged, personal responsibility, social responsibility, limited government, respect for legitimate authority, fairness, or any number of others. Whatever they are for you, they are the reasons you subscribe to one political position over another. It is important to trace your political positions back to such core principles, because it assures that your political discussions center on matters of true importance to you. And giving your interlocutors—in this case, your children—the same opportunity to share their core principles helps you understand what is truly important to them.
Getting to each other’s foundation in this way enables you to actually engage on their differences. Instead of talking past one another, you will be talking with one another. Instead of refuting the most vocal, extreme, and nonsensical viewpoints of your political counterparts, you will discuss the actual ideas of the people before you. Instead of facing straw men, you will be facing steel men—a much harder task, but a more constructive and gratifying one.
Declaring beliefs and values is hard in and of itself. It takes a fair amount of introspection. You have to know who you are and what you stand for. But doing so carries a major benefit, as it opens the door for civil discussions with others who are likely to respect your opinions.
Declaring beliefs and values also carries some responsibility. Once you declare your beliefs and values, others will be able to view your past and future positions through the lens of whatever beliefs and values you declare. You will be expected to maintain coherent positions across political issues, using sound reasoning. If you take positions that are not aligned with your core principles, then your positions will be identified as hypocritical. This is especially the case when talking politics with children. Children are experts at asking innocent questions that shine a light on any inconsistencies in your logic.
Of course, understand that people are works in progress. This applies to both you and your children. There are valid ways in which your beliefs and values may change over time. You continually acquire new information and assimilate it into your psyche as you go through life. You may reevaluate how new information fits into your existing collection of beliefs and values, and make adjustments accordingly. This is a legitimate way to continue developing oneself while maintaining an integrated set of principles. Of course, someone might also use invalid means to change their principles, such as doing so on an ad hoc basis for purposes of expediency or convenience, or to defend a superficial preference or favored position.
A critical and objective interlocutor, such as a well-raised child, can often tell the difference. Such a person just might call you out on your inconsistencies. Such a person will be just as likely be understanding when you adjust your positions to better align with your principles as a result of reasoned discussions.
That is an ideal outcome of political discussions: shifting our positions to accommodate other viewpoints, and/or persuading someone else to do the same, while remaining faithful to our core principles. After all, if we couldn’t do that, then why discuss anything at all?
Want more like this? See a related video here.
How to Properly Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “2 Rules for Talking to Children About Politics”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/talking-politics.