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Helping Our Children Navigate a Politically Partisan World

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Shortly after this month's election, I overheard several of my son's friends talking "smack" on the playground about the election's winners and losers. Nothing too derogatory, but several voiced digs along the lines of, "I can't believe your parents voted for [Candidate X]."

Since my son was engrossed in their conversation, I thought it was time to talk with him about the importance of appreciating other people's views in this polarizing world of politics we live in. After all, given that the wounds from the election are still fresh and being salted by the political infighting over the looming financial cliff, it's not likely our nation will come together politically any time soon.

Inspired by a great article last month by Mike Espejo in Metro Parent on how to talk to your kids about politics, I tried to say all the right things to my son. I remained neutral on political issues and candidates, and avoided any mention of my own political beliefs and biases. I stressed that he focus on values and ideals, so that when he's old enough to vote, he can form his own independent, political views. Echoing Michele Obama's words during her speech to the Democratic National Convention, I emphasized the importance of respecting opposing views and valuing everyone's contributions.

My son nodded thoughtfully, but I could tell he wasn't buying it. He got in the last word, arguing, "But you and Mom talk politics all the time, and don't hold back your criticisms of the other party's views. Why should I be different?"

Perhaps he had a point. Maybe it's naïve to try and raise children in a completely unbiased political way in this very partisan political world. How, then, to teach our kids to form sound political judgments without demonizing those who hold differing views?

I had a revelation several days later during a lunch with a good friend. My friend is a major fundraiser for one of the political parties. His wife is a major fundraiser for the other political party. Think James Carville and Mary Matalin, though not quite in the same public spotlight.

"How then do you two get along?" I asked.

"Simple," my friend said. "We never let our political discussions reach the level of an argument, and we don't ever try to change each other's mind. We just explain our perspective so that the other will understand where we're coming from."

What a concept! Two people engaged in political discourse solely for the purpose of making sure each understands what the other believes and why. Not to win the other person's vote or to solicit a donation or endorsement. Not even to win an argument. If the billionaire political donors from the last election had spent a fraction of their money supporting foundations that promote civil discourse and better understanding between political adversaries, we might never have another person say after an election, as we did this year and back in 2004, "I can't understand why anyone would ever want to vote for [the other guy]."

I tried out my friend's approach on my son. I told him it's good to have strong political opinions, but make sure you keep an open mind and learn all the facts. Listen to how those on the other side view a political issue, and don't try to argue with them or convince them of their error. Simply agree to understand what their view is and why they hold it. Consider how you would describe both sides of the issue if you had to explain it to a teacher or friend.

Who knows? You might realize you don't fully understand the problem, and even decide to change your own view. Or perhaps they'll come around to your way of thinking if they don't feel pressured to do so. At the very least, you both might find some common ground for compromise.

My son's reaction? "Okay, I'll try it."

Now if we could only get the same response from our elected officials!

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com.
You can also follow the authors on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DadTellMeAStory, or join them on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DadTellMeAStory