In the pre-dawn hours of an autumn morning, parents bring their middle schoolers to board charter buses for the annual trip to Washington, DC. As duffle bags are loaded, some of the parents whisper to each other.
The bus driver, it seems, is wearing a MAGA hat. “Hold on a minute,” one parent says to another, “I need to tell my kid not to say anything to him about that hat.”
Debriefing months later, one student recollects that it seemed appropriate to quietly talk to their seat mate about the hat but not to discuss it publicly — and definitely not to confront the driver. Another student mentions that the bus company should have a policy disallowing political garb.
While it may be tempting to immediately challenge the MAGA-hatted driver — or your right-wing relative or a racist neighbor — it is not necessarily in our kids’ best interest to do so. While we can (and should!) privately discuss one-on-one with our kids what we believe is problematic about someone else’s beliefs, we need to know when to pick our battles. Adults entrenched in particular views are not likely to change their minds. While we might — if alone — want to try talking through narrow-minded views, when our kids are with us, it’s wisest to focus on the lessons we teach them, not others.
Looking at political volatility as yet another of the tricky realms of parenting that we must navigate, we can find some guidelines to shape how we handle things. Think for a moment about your mindset when discussing hot topics like sexuality, violence, or drug and alcohol use. Most of us approach these topics with an emphasis on our teen’s safety and their ability to be true to themselves.
Likewise, when we are navigating a moment of political volatility in front of our teenagers, we prioritize safety and being true to ourselves. In the moment, we assess the situation before taking action; we work to de-escalate and/or to contain emotions (make it psychologically and physically safe); we notice the pull between social propriety and our deeply-held values; and we debrief together after the moment is behind us. Later, we think together about the interface of the dilemma and our values. We commit to taking some kind of action for the greater good.
These are all the same actions we follow when we face these moments alone. We gauge who we are talking to, the context, the likelihood for progress, various perspectives, and possible outcomes. We try to keep level-headed and to reduce tensions as a way to hear our own thoughts and also to get to civil discourse. Sometimes this involves walking away. Afterwards, we review what happened (whether in our own minds or talking with someone). This is a healthy and reasonable mechanism the mind uses to integrate a difficult moment. As we gain distance from the situation, we think about what we did, how we could have handled it differently, what we would do the same, and what we would do if it ever happens again. It’s human to want to do more after such a moment. This might involve following-up with the individual, getting involved in local or national efforts, making donations, creating related art, or educating others.
The difference between handling these moments alone versus with your teen is that your internal process needs to become visible (audible) to your teen. Mindful of your child’s readiness to take it all in, you are role-modeling how to manage tricky situations. When we narrate our own thoughts and actions, our kids witness and learn how to navigate real-world situations. They can handle hearing that we are ever-evolving as adults — that a situation felt intimidating or challenging before we found the right strategy.
In the context of political animosity in public or within personal relationships, while we may feel outrage and even despair, our job is to be honest while not allowing feelings to overwhelm us, so our teens understand that the situation can be managed. Then, we should listen to their concerns, ideas, feelings, and theories. Let them think; let them wrestle. As they share their concerns — when they feel listened to (which is different than when we feel like we have listened enough) — we can then think together about possible strategies to handle the situation.
If narrow-minded Aunt Nellie is going to be at the holiday table, for instance, and everyone remembers the scene from last year, listen to your teen’s observations, thoughts, and feelings about what it was like. Briefly confide how it felt to you (“Yeah, it didn’t feel like a holiday once everyone argued.”) Then think together about what you as a family can do that would feel true to yourselves and your family values (e.g. kindness, respect, taking action).
Perhaps your teen will suggest skipping that gathering or offer the idea of calling or writing to Aunt Nellie to lay some ground rules about the upcoming time together. Or perhaps a different seating arrangement and frequent walks to create space could help de-escalate the situation. Discuss the pros and cons of all the ideas on the table. Your job is to role model how, as a team, to approach a tricky situation — there is no right or wrong outcome. The goal is to demonstrate that thinking together is a great way to solve problems.
Unfortunately, negative confrontations with people who cannot be brought into civil discourse are a part of life, occurring without notice or preparation. It’s okay to share a PG-13 version of these moments with our teens, in bearable bits that match their readiness. Sharing how we face dilemmas is part of role-modeling and empowers them for life’s confrontational moments.
Whether or not your child was with you at the hedge when your racist neighbor shared his ugly views, it’s okay to say, “Matt really surprised me today. I didn’t know he felt that way.” Talk about how the surprise made it hard to know what to do and how you then thought about your social values (justice) while also wanting to live by your family values (kindness) toward Matt —and how your value of kindness helped you decide to step away from the conversation so you could think more about it without being on the spot. Basically, you play a video reel back in slow motion, with narration. This helps you integrate what just happened, AND it helps your teen understand the strategies you used and will use.
As parents, we wrestle for years with moral dilemmas quietly to shield our young children from them. During the teenage years, though, it becomes our job to gradually expose them to some of that internal wrestling — because it is a life skill they need for their own adulthood. The goal isn’t to always win; the goal is to be able to tolerate the wrestling so we can come out the other side with actionable steps.
With the bus driver, an actionable step might be writing to the bus company about the inappropriateness of political garb. It might be getting involved in a political campaign for the next election. It might be joining a club at school where your teen can discuss personal values they noticed when they saw the hat.
With Aunt Nellie, our actionable steps might be changing the way the holiday is shared so there is less opportunity for confrontation (adding a game, an outing, a movie; changing seating; shortening the duration of the meal; skipping the gathering all together). It might be approaching Aunt Nellie with kindness to include her in the problem solving. Or it might be deciding that it’s time to create space from Aunt Nellie because her views are too toxic for your family and she isn’t going to change. It might even be quietly skipping the family gathering this year and deciding later what to do about Aunt Nellie.
And with the neighbor at the hedge, actionable steps might be working to remember the kind connection you have with the neighbor (if you have one) and focus on that while limiting side conversations. Or it might be noticing as a family that this person has always been hostile and that there isn’t a relationship to preserve, but recognizing that civility to neighbors is still a family value. Another solution might involve increasing connectivity to other neighbors who share your values so you can continue to feel good in your home despite one disagreeable person.
In tandem, action might include making donations to and/or volunteering with a social justice group — as a way of counteracting the impact of all the MAGA hatted bus drivers, reductionistic Aunt Nellies, and bigoted neighbors.