Schoolteachers around the country are now back in school during one of the most divisive political seasons in American history. For the next three months, teachers will be trying to navigate a minefield every time a student mentions Trump, Clinton, or anything political. Parents face the same challenge at home and in the car, as news stories and political pundits on TV and radio set traps at every turn for us to fall into, while our kids watch and listen to our responses.
It’s tough enough for us adults to control our tongues in this bizarro world of inflammatory politics, where the candidates and the media outlets are leading the way with the politics of fear and outrage. It seems like we have lost all civility in our culture. Neither the candidates nor the press wants to discuss the issues in depth anymore, unless there is an overwhelming amount of nastiness to drive ratings sky high. Just look at the debates.
In spite of this toxic political environment, I believe that we CAN talk politics in school and at home in a way that honors truth and honors people.
My personal struggle currently is in two places: as a 7th grade social studies teacher and as the parent of a high school senior who will be voting for the first time in November. So I made a little guide for myself, and I am sharing it with the hope that it may help someone else along in a similar place. This is by no means a comprehensive approach, but it’s a great place to start.
TALKING POLITICS WITH KIDS
Set a Time to Talk it Out
Example: Johnny says boldly in class, “Hillary and Bill Clinton are the perfect political couple. He’s a cheater, and she’s a liar!”
To which the teacher can respond, “Hey Johnny, we can’t discuss any of that right now, but we can talk about that to some extent on Wednesday. I want you to think about how we can talk about that in a productive way Wednesday. I’ll be calling on you.”
Focus on Facts
Speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And encourage others to do the same.
As a teacher or parent, you need to help young people see that not everything they hear or say is true. Much of it is not fact but mere opinion (which may seem true now and later be known as untrue). Yet, some of it is true, but it still needs to be backed up with some facts. And sometimes, it’s a complicated mix of half-truths, facts, and pure fiction. So let’s be a bit more like Snopes.com, the online fact checker. Focus on what is true. Weed out what’s not.
- Obama is not even a US citizen, and he’s a muslim.
- Trump is a terrible businessman. He’s the king of bankruptcy.
- Hillary is going to try to take everybody’s guns away.
Ask: Is it true? How are you so sure? Is it fact, fiction, or something in between?
Teach your kids to decipher fact from fiction and to shape opinions based on facts. Most arguments arise from conflicting opinions based on speculation and false narratives. The truth settles most arguments. However, sometimes it’s simply a bad attitude that is the real culprit.
Keep a Positive Attitude
- Avoid Personal Attacks
First of all, we have to lead with a good example. We have to watch our words. Second, we should expect our kids to avoid ugly personal attacks on candidates or classmates.
Children need to be aware that many people feel personally attached to their candidate or party, and they will often feel extremely angry or sad if you attack them.
- Trump is a psychopathic moron!
- Are you insane?
- Only a total idiot would say that!
Be sensitive to the fact that when you attack your friend’s favorite political figure, it’s going to hurt her indirectly. And when someone gets hurt, they will hurt someone else in return. Hurt people hurt people.
Instead of attacking a person, attack ideas that you disagree with. Debate ideas, not people. It’s okay to attack a thought, not a person. The difference may seem subtle, but crucial.
- Diffuse Comments of Mass Destruction
A young teen can be the master of making a comment that is the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade. They pull the pin and lob it in the crowd. These comments are not aimed at one person but many, and chaos often ensues.
- Democrats suck!
- Republicans are racists!
- Politicians are all corrupt liars!
Adults can help kids correct themselves after making inflammatory remarks. Redirect them by pointing out the untruth of these sweeping statements. Teach kids to consider their message carefully and keep the tone civil. It’s good to disagree with someone; it’s bad to insult. That’s as true for the teacher as it is for the student. Let’s all rise above the nastiness.
Teachers and students alike should be open to new ideas. Parent and kids should never stop learning. We should all respect other people and their rights to have their own opinions. Listening is the best way to both learn new things and to honor others.
Strive to understand the other side of every issue. Honor thy neighbor, even if he or she is wrong. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to be civil in the way you speak and behave with others, even your political opponents. Listen, rather than retaliate.
And remember that a political enemy is not your actual enemy. ISIS is your actual enemy. Cancer is your enemy. The truth is that you have all sorts of things in common with someone from the other side of the aisle. You love America. You believe in democracy and the rule of law. You want schools to be excellent, neighborhoods to be safe, justice to be impartial, nature to be conserved, and all sorts of other wonderful things. So, don’t be fooled into thinking that the other side must lose in order for your side to win.
Politics should not be a zero sum game. We should all be able to participate, debate, and walk away with relationships still intact. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?