Parenting in the Age of Polarization

March 2, 2018

My two kids have always had a competitive and contentious relationship. Now that they are teens, this friction often expresses itself as fierce disagreement on social and political issues. As the wider culture has grown increasingly polarized, so had our dinnertime conversation. Name any hotly debated topic – gun control, abortion, immigration – and one kid would be strongly on one side while the other kid took the opposite viewpoint. My dining table had become a tiny version of larger societal debates, where both sides screamed and yelled at each other, and listening, compassion, and empathy were in short supply. As you can imagine, this made dinner time about as much fun as a congressional filibuster. Something had to be done.

We tried instituting rules of fair engagement, but the incitement to provoke the other to tears or incriminations proved irresistible. For a while, we tried banning political conversations. This not only proved ineffective, it felt like the wrong message to send. Was it really right to teach them that we just don’t talk about things that we find uncomfortable? Then, I hit upon an inspired idea which has largely solved our nightly problem. The rule is simple: no topic is off limits, but you must argue your opponents side. When we discuss gun control, the kid who supports a person’s right to bear arms has to come up with reasons why it might make sense to put limits on gun ownership, and the pro gun control kid has to explain why protecting second amendment rights might be important. And my husband and I have to do the same. (Let’s just say I’ve learned a lot about the second amendment recently.)

I can’t claim that implementation of this new rule as gone perfectly smoothly. The initial reaction to my suggestion was shock, followed by righteous indignation: shock that there might be another viewpoint with merit enough to investigate, and righteous indignation that they would be asked to climb off their ideological pedestal to do so. Yet even the request seemed to shift something. We were asking each kid to think outside his or her comfort zone, and the immediate effect of this was that the rhetoric toned down.

Not only has this new policy made for more pleasant dinnertimes, I feel good about helping my kids to think critically and appreciate viewpoint diversity. Being able to see only one side of the argument is dangerously limiting. Author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt founded Heterodox Academy to promote viewpoint diversity and “constructive disagreement” on college campuses. This short video makes the case for why a range of view points can be so important in teaching kids to become critical thinkers.

Shutting ourselves off from other viewpoints and perspectives may mean that we miss the “big picture.” It calls to mind the Indian parable of the three blind men and the elephant. None of the blind men have ever seen an elephant before, and they are all touching different parts of the animal in an attempt to learn about it. The blind man touching the elephant’s tail asserts that an elephant is like a rope. The man touching the leg gets angry at the first man, saying that an elephant is like a great pillar, not a rope! The third man becomes enraged at both of the others, proclaiming that an elephant is like a broad leaf as he strokes the animal’s ear.

All of us – parents and kids – are being encouraged to see things through the narrow lens of bitter partisan squabbles. I want my kids to learn to think for themselves and to feel heard and respected, even when I disagree with them. Just maybe, I can help conquer political tribalism – one family dinner at a time.

Originally posted on Psych Central


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