Monday, November 5, 2012

Don't Be a Jerk: A Manifesto on Sanity in Parenting and Politics on the Eve of an Election

Tomorrow’s presidential election will probably be the first one my girls will remember. At ages eight and five, they notice the yard signs, talk a little about the election at school, and ask my husband and me who we’ll be voting for. Their curiosity has made for some great dinner-table conversation at our house, and it’s made me realize that some of the very same life rules I try to teach my girls are handy reminders for the best ways to behave during an election year. I thought I said most of what I have to say about politics in a post I wrote four years ago, but it turns out I wasn’t finished.

I’ve noticed that these two subjects (parenting and politics) have more in common than we might originally think. I’ve noticed that most adults tend to fall into one of three camps when it comes to politics, and I’ve deduced that, no matter which camp you’re in, we could all do with a refresher course in how to deal with divisive issues – course material taken, of course, from the very platitudes we spout to our children about compassion and cooperation.


I’ll start by describing my husband’s approach to politics: He doesn’t. Approach it, that is. He is the least-informed, least-partisan, least-political person I know. We don’t watch the news at our house (don’t watch much television at all, really, excepting a few regular sitcoms, Michigan football, and (blushes) a relatively embarrassing amount of Tosh.O) and don’t get the paper, either. He doesn’t even spend much time on social media or talking with friends or neighbors about current events, and our time together with our kids mostly involves listening to music at top volume, cooking, being outside, or attending to the minutae of errands and chores that it takes to run a household.

Ergo, things like the Aurora, Colorado shooting or the Chick-Fil-A controversy happen, and he doesn’t even know unless I tell him. (Which I usually think to do a couple days later, if at all.) He probably didn’t notice when Romney picked Ryan for a running mate, and he’s never going to discuss tax policy or healthcare reform with you at a cocktail party. Before voting in the presidential election, he and I might have one or two conversations where I lay out the major positions of both sides, and he’ll probably watch the debates. That’s it.

I bet this approach looks irresponsible to a lot of people, and I get how you could see it that way. After all, a democracy relies on an informed electorate, and he’s not exactly informed.  But you know what else he’s not? Bitter, obsessed, wrapped up in issues beyond his control, or lying awake at night mentally responding to an acrimonious Facebook debate. He chooses to use his energy running a business, making a living for our family, raising his children the best he knows how, playing music as much as possible, keeping his body healthy with exercise, getting enough sleep, using television for occasional entertainment, and surrounding himself with fun and positive people and experiences. He’s scratched out his little corner of the world and he spends his days making that little corner the best it can be. It’s thinking locally in the most literal way possible.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the approach to politics I see modeled by plenty of other friends and family. Let’s call this The Bubble Approach. It looks like this: No matter who is in office or what issues are at hand, work yourself into a frenzy by watching the same, insular, and biased news media on a daily basis. Bray loudly about how the world is this close to going to hell in a handbasket. Be constantly full of rage and contempt for “the other side.” See the world in black and white, and be convinced that “they” are “evil.” Make every Facebook post about politics, use divisive language, offend friends and loved ones with abandon, and spam everyone on your email list with a constant stream of forwards and memes designed to provoke alarm. Surround yourself with others who see the world exactly the way you do, and make no attempt to allow other perspectives or thoughtful dialogues into your circle. Most of all, don’t actually DO anything to promote change, just stew about how horrible everything is, all of the time.

This approach, while tempting and probably even initially satisfying (“I’m so right! Everyone I see on TV and know in real life agrees with me!”), has some drawbacks, too. The first problem is that you go around in a constant state of alarm, feeding off media-fed fear and certain that your faithful group of citizens alone is the one last bulwark saving your country from ruin. That’s a lot of pressure. I bet your blood pressure is a little higher than average and you don’t always sleep that well at night. The second problem with this approach is that you’re liable to offend friends and family who love you, possibly without even knowing you’re doing it, leading to an even greater loss of levity and balance in your world. You might not mind, but be aware that you’re in danger of becoming that person next to whom nobody wants to be seated at the family dinner for fear of what might come out of your mouth. The lack of empathy and compassion you display isn’t winning you any new friends, either – or, ironically, luring anyone over to your political positions.

Then there’s a third approach. (Spoiler alert: I’m a sucker for the third, moderate, just-right-bowl-of-porridge approach in almost every situation!) The third approach to politics in an election year relies on remembering the platitudes we constantly tell our children in an effort to turn them into model little siblings and citizens (yes, I finally got back to that). I try (try!) to live in this third camp. Want to join me? Here’s how that looks:

1. “Everyone is different, and likes different things.” This is something I tell my children when they wonder why this little girl likes to skateboard, or that little boy doesn’t know how to walk well yet, or this one needs alone time while this one is a social butterfly, or this family watches a show that we don’t, or this family spends their money on that, or this girl gets her ears pierced, or that boy’s not allowed to play football.

Notice how I’m not judging the other kids or families, because as long as there isn’t outright abuse or neglect, it’s totally acceptable for people to do things differently – to have different priorities, budgets, values, rules, and traditions. It’s the beauty of our country, right? But the danger of both my husband’s “head-down” approach to politics as well as The Bubble Approach is that you never see just how wide a swath of opinions, lifestyles, and worldviews exist. Oh, you may think that you associate with a wide variety of people or know a wide perspective, but you probably don’t.

For example, I know full well that, in the community I which I live, our family is quite “average” in terms of income and wealth, but that doesn’t mean that we are average in comparison with most people in the country. In my upper-middle-class bubble, I see lots of people who think that they are “regular, middle-class” people, but they aren’t. They’re overestimating how much money most Americans make. Go ahead, Google “median family income” and see how you stack up. I’ll wait. SEE?

More research that shows just how poorly we do at knowing what is average or normal comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She writes on her blog, “Our sense of what’s “moderate” is also affected by the psychological phenomenon of false consensus. We tend to believe that other people agree with us, even when they don’t, and to overestimate the commonness of our preferences and habits. Because we think people are more like us than they are, we assume that what seems “moderate” to us is objectively moderate.”

Rubin continues: “Also, because of “homophily,” which is the tendency of people to associate with similar people, we tend to be friends with people who have the same sense of how much drinking, or sugar, or exercise, or reading, is moderate or excessive. So you do, in fact, see your tendencies reflected in the people around you.”

By reminding ourselves - in the same way that we remind our children - that “everyone is different,” we widen our sphere of influence and let in a few more worldviews. Here’s why that’s important:  Once you’ve recognized your bubbles and become more aware of the wide range of legitimate worldviews, it’s tougher to demonize the opposition. Once your best friend’s husband is an E.R. doctor who does his best every day to provide good care to anyone who walks through the hospital doors, you can’t lump all doctors in as “greedy.” Once you know someone who has been racially discriminated against, you’ll have a different perspective on affirmative action or hate speech. Once you know a gay professional who grew up on welfare in a working-class town, put himself through graduate school, and spends his vacations doing mission trips, you realize that people don’t fit into tidy little boxes labeled “right” and “wrong;” you remember that everyone is somebody’s beloved child; you notice that every human being has the capacity for good and evil; and you make room for a few more voices in your bubble.

2.  “Is what you’re saying kind and helpful?” This is the question I put to my daughters when they criticize one another unnecessarily, when they jump in and add their opinion when it wasn’t asked for, when they call names, when they use the words “always” and “never,” and when they forget, as is the actual slogan at their school, that “Kindness Counts!” If we don’t want our kids growing up to be bullies, we shouldn’t be using our voices to bully our political opposition, either. We should be asking ourselves, when we do engage in those passionate conversations, whether what we’re saying is kind, and whether what we’re saying is helpful to the conversation.

This is tricky, I know, because you want to spread The Truth! You have it, and you just really, really need everyone else to know it. You’re just educating people, you say. You’re not trying to be mean, per se, but this piece of information is, as my eight-year-old would say, a True Fact, and so, if in the telling, people’s feelings get hurt, oh well. The Truth must be told!

First of all, congratulations on knowing The Truth! (Sarcasm alert.) We should all be so lucky. Here’s a check against that impulse, though: Would you let your daughter talk to her grandmother the way you’re talking to your political opponent? Would you talk this way to your next-door neighbor, if you knew you had to live next to him for the next twenty years? Would you encourage your son to call his friend names to solve a problem?

I’m not saying you can never speak up for a cause you believe in, or that people should always agree (or pretend to agree) with one another. I value freedom of speech and expression mightily. But ask yourself if you will be able to make your case for your opinion with kindness, civility, and respect. If you won’t, it’s probably best not to engage. Just because you CAN air your views on gun control, doesn’t mean you necessarily SHOULD.

Instead, if we truly want our children to engage the world with kindness, we have to model that for them in our conversations. Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, in her article “The Cruelty Crisis: Bullying Isn’t a School Problem, It’s a National Pastime,” writes:

When it comes to managing conflict and difference, we're not exactly modeling the behaviors that we want to see in our children. Whether it's politics, religion, or social issues, the more uncertain we feel, the more certain we act. Finger pointing, screaming, and in-your-face personal attacks have replaced respectful and necessary debate and discourse. We see this everywhere from political talk shows and school meetings, to the sidelines of kids' soccer games. I've heard people define bullying as "angry, aggressive acting out in children." I would argue that a lot of bullying is simply kids acting like aggressive parents acting out and behaving like angry children.

If you want to survive the election season  - or life in general, really  - with your dignity and relationships intact, you shouldn’t be bullying, name-calling, posting hateful screeds online, spamming friends and family with email memes, or talking about the other political party with hatred and contempt. You shouldn’t call candidates “a big scary monster” or “a moronic weenie” (I’ve witnessed both this year); you shouldn’t characterize an entire party as “all you liberal elites” or “those conservative nuts;” and you should probably avoid the words “always” and “never,” as they leave no room for real debate. In short, you shouldn’t be talking to anyone about politics in a way that you wouldn’t allow your children to speak to other human beings.

3.  “You just worry about you.” Ah, this one was a favorite of my mother’s when I was growing up, and now it’s a favorite of mine. Nobody much likes the child who waits in the wings to tattle on a sibling. Similarly, no grown voter appreciates your unsolicited advice. (Also, the president is probably not going to call you for your input about tax policy or abortion rights, so there is no need to have all your platforms at the ready.) The world is not depending on you sending yet another un-Snopes-researched email to everyone on your address list, and nobody appreciates your loud and angry Facebook posts with constant links to partisan sources. You don’t get to change anyone else’s mind or control anyone else’s opinion. You just worry about YOU.

What does this look like? Well, for one, it might mean agreeing to disagree with friends and family who are not on board with all your ideas. It might further mean just not having those conversations any more, because they cause too much angst and ill will. (How then, you wonder, will the people around you learn The Truth? Well, if they want your opinion, here is how you will know: They will ask you for it. (!) Otherwise, maybe stop talking about it.)

I know this is hard, especially when you hear or see someone stating an opinion with which you vehemently disagree. Just a week or two ago, though, I saw two old friends battle bitterly over politics on Facebook, and I couldn’t help but think that the damage it was doing to their relationship wasn’t worth it. Certainly, neither of them changed their mind. Remember, please, that we’re all going to have to wake up on November 7th and continue to live with one another.

The second, more important part of worrying about yourself means that you should be DOING SOMETHING PRODUCTIVE with your opinions.  This is a happy resolution of the extreme approaches to politics I talked about above. Think globally, then act locally. Turn off Fox News (or MSNBC), stop listening to Michael Moore’s (or Rush Limbaugh’s) rude diatribes, delete the propaganda-filled email, ignore the YouTube videos, and try to change your little, local corner of the world for the better. So if you are passionate about the right to life for the unborn, find a local organization that needs your help and spend your time counseling pregnant mothers, donating clothing and diapers to a shelter, or advocating at an adoption agency. If you have strong convictions about the environment, give your money to the Sierra Club or a local watershed clean-up effort. If you feel strongly about education, volunteer in a school to help students learn to read, and write a check to your local PTA. Knock on doors for local candidates you believe in (I’ve done this, and it’s actually fun), find a local organization doing something positive to support with your time, energy, and money, and, of course, vote. You get one vote. We all do. But all of your strong convictions are so much empty air unless you act on them, and act on them 365 days a year, not just in the frenzy of a major election year.

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will go stand in line to vote for the next President of the United States. Later tomorrow, those same Americans will sit around family dinner tables or meet friends for drinks to watch those election results come in. No matter who you vote for – no matter who wins – if you truly want the next generation of Americans to be compassionate citizens of a productive country, try to remember that the very platitudes we use to teach our children kindness, respect, and responsibility are good reminders for their voting-aged parents, too. Consider expanding your bubble, talking with kindness, and worrying about yourself. Consider taking a moderate approach to politics, and, please, don’t be a jerk. The parent AND the voter in me thanks you in advance.


  1. Excellent!! So very insightful and offering great ideas to make your opinions productive!!

  2. Love this very much. I just sent it on to my husband as he put a rant on FB last night that I ended up asking him to remove. (cue argument)
    His words weren't productive nor kind nor helpful and just made him look small and close-minded. I know that's not who he IS or wants to be. Thanks for the reminder of good behavior...even adults need to be reminded from time to time.

  3. Thanks for sharing. You gave me something to think describing Jason, you described me. I've often thought something was "wrong" with me for being so apolitical, but you offer a new perspective!