Feeling Blue in a Red State: Teens, Politics, and the Party Line
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
I live in a strong Republican state (Texas) so most people around us are pro-Trump, pro-guns, anti-abortion. And I have no problem with a well-thought-out reason contrary to my own stance if offered, and will politely disagree. But my teen doesn’t have the desire to learn his own stance—he’s just repeating what he hears. He has that common teen trait of not truly listening to the whole story so he walks away with the most inflammatory remarks, or partial conversations.
My husband is a Republican and I am a Democrat so we can discuss issues as a couple in front of our kids and they get both sides. I want my kids to be raised with open minds, to research their options, not to blindly jump on the bandwagon. In this incredibly inflammatory political season I feel as if the current climate should be an example of how to not run political campaigns. I feel as if society is becoming more divided and I worry this next generation of teenagers will continue this trend.
So: How do I get him to examine both sides? It’s not that I want him to agree with me (it would be nice though—ha!) but I want him to learn to think for himself and form his own opinion.
As a liberal in Georgia, let me just start off with fist-bump of solidarity, sister. I feel you.
But right on the heels of that, let me also say that I don’t necessarily think this is an issue limited to being a political minority in a given state or even having a teen whose professed politics are different from your own. If the current political situation in our country is teaching us anything, I hope it’s letting all members of humanity know loud and clear that we, as a country, need to work on two things: Tolerance, and critical thinking.
I tend to go very Socratic when we discuss politics at home. Even though both my teens share our political views, I still ask a lot of questions when we talk about issues. “What makes you think that?” “What exactly does that mean?” “What’s the alternative?” “Why do you think [politician] said that?” “What do you think appeals to people about that message?” “How do we find out if that’s true?” We constantly challenge them to defend their positions, and while we have a “no electronics at the dinner table” rule, it’s becoming not-unusual for us to break that rule (or finish dinner up, fast) so that someone can fetch a device and do some Googling. That’s the critical thinking part.
So on the one hand, we have it easy, because we’re not dealing with one or both kids asserting a viewpoint we find ridiculous (though I hope both my husband and I would find a way to probe and challenge and discuss it calmly, if we were). On the other hand, one of my teens in particular is prone to sweeping moral judgments and derision towards the opposition, and that’s not good, either. That’s where the tolerance piece comes in. And again, we start with questions: “Okay, I agree with you that that seems stupid, but if that’s truly what [politician] believes, why do you think they feel that way?” “What might make a person cling tightly to an ideal that potentially oppresses others?” “Do you think [politician] really believes that, or is this pandering to their base?” “Are we any better than the politicians we dislike if we use words like ‘hate’ and other insults?”
In practical terms, that means that if a teen declares, say, that they think a certain presidential candidate is stupid and deranged and should step in front of a bus (not saying this has or hasn’t happened…), my first response is to point out that hate and revenge are not family values and I am never okay with hearing harm wished upon another human. My second response is to point out that hate is a poor weapon to combat hate, and we have to find a way to love in response (and maybe that doesn’t mean loving that particular politician, per se, but maybe feeling compassion for whatever sort of life events bring people to a place where that particular set of viewpoints seems logical). My third response is to point out that politics are best influenced by momentum of your preferred candidate rather than opposition to the one(s) you don’t like. So if this is bothering you, kids, turn it into a positive—campaign for the candidate or cause that matters to you, rather than wasting time/energy on being enraged about the things which upset you.
So back to your particular situation, S—I don’t know what you’re doing in response to your son’s declarations at the moment, but here are a few concrete suggestions for moving forward:
- No tolerance for hatred. If a stance begins with marginalization or condemnation of a group of people or an opposing candidate, hold up a hand and let him know that you’re going to stop him right there. Hate speech is not going to be tolerated in your home, period. If he cannot stop himself from continuing on, well, I think that will present an excellent opportunity for a summer research assignment on whatever issue he’s spouting off about, using approved sources, to write you a short summary of both sides of the issue.
- Critical examination of “moral” issues. The current political climate has presented us with limitless opportunities, it seems, to discuss what is “moral” and what the government and its officials rights and responsibilities are when it comes to legislating these matters. Again, if he takes a stance which limits the freedom of others from a supposedly “moral” standpoint, ask him to explain himself. Let him know why you disagree. Use examples of people in his own life to illustrate those who would be adversely affected—I think teens, in particular, often have a hard time applying the idea to their everyday lives, and may be surprised to learn that hey, this isn’t just a concept, but something with real-life ramifications for real people.
- Discussion of how to separate facts from bias and spin. You may not be able to convince your teen to read the paper or check trusted sources on this stuff every time, but you can absolutely talk about what the options are for finding unbiased confirmation of assertions, when necessary. Now, sure, some people insist that even the “unbiased” sites are biased (and that’s a discussion in itself; we all have some bias), but I like this listing of six sites as a good starting point for fact-checking politics and other issues. And along with that, absolutely talk about what political issues are historically important in a state like Texas, and why the politics there lean the way they do.
- Reinforce the principles that matter most in your family. This seems obvious, but think about it: If your family believes, for example, in the Dalai Lama quote “Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible” (or some variation thereof), regardless of political beliefs, you can continue to reinforce that a bent towards cruelty, exclusion, or superiority is out of line. (It’s up to you to assess your son’s environment and discuss whether it’s wise for him to use some of these skills he’s learning at home to challenge his peers or others when they muddy positions with emotions and/or wanton power grabs.) As another example: we are teaching our children that they have a moral obligation to speak up for the marginalized, and that silence is consent in the face of oppression, even if they’re not the ones being oppressed. This has led to my son, in particular, getting into some heated debates at school, but that’s another story. Anyway, if you find your teen insisting that “well those people don’t matter” as part of his justification for a certain stance, it’s easy enough to remind him that everyone matters, and any position which holds otherwise is not the way you’ve raised him. He may roll his eyes, but if you keep steady on this stuff (and it is indeed the way you’ve raised him), it may be getting through.
I think the fact that you and your husband come from different sides of the aisle and can discuss issues in front of your kids is also fantastic—even if it seems like he’s not paying attention, you’re modeling debate skills and respectful listening, and that’s awesome. We obviously can’t control how our kids form opinions, but between modeling and encouraging thoughtfulness, hopefully we can steer the process a little. Good luck!
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.