Post-Election 2012– Teaching Kids How to Respectfully Disagree
This morning, amidst the windy chill before the season’s first snow, the children standing in line at our neighborhood bus stop kept warm as they kicked around one topic of banter among them: politics. It started when one very vocal boy said “I’m so mad Romney lost. I hate Obama.” Then a girl chimed in, “He’s the only person in the world named ‘Barack.’” Timidly, a younger boy added, “I’m glad about Obama.” Then the opinions really started flying between the children, as the big yellow elementary school bus pulled up to our corner.
The spirited, but not unique, conversation got me thinking about how to teach children to talk about what matters to them, but without the rancor (and maybe some fact-checking). How can we raise our children to see various sides of contentious situations as the Founding Fathers and Mothers would have wanted them to, and to effectively, accurately express their views? Civil dialogue and respect helps strengthen the democracy that all these children’s families value. As issues in our country and world become more complex, children need the tools to think about multiple perspectives (even if they don’t agree), so that as adults they can work with diverse people from far-flung places to solve seemingly intractable problems – from finance and poverty to climate change, natural resource use and public health.
This nuanced way of looking at issues is a skill of empathy – seeing multiple perspectives or sides of an issue – not political appeasement. To get to this point, we need to take age-appropriate steps with kids so they build up their ability to weigh various perspectives.
My friend Catherine shared this story which is deceptively simple yet so instructive. She offered a metaphor that her kids could relate to, in order for them to picture a principle of profound significance:
“During President Obama's inauguration four years ago, there were many people in the crowd who ‘boo’-ed when President Bush came out [to make his farewell]. Our young children were with us at that historic inauguration. They were surprised by the booing. We asked them to consider how our family would work if once we made a decision together, those of us who weren't happy were bitter and undermining, and those who were happy gloated and put down the ‘loser.’ ... What could our family really accomplish?”
Starting from a micro-level, Catherine’s example showed how paralyzing such contention can be for a family. If you see your fellow citizens (of your country and the world) as one human family, you might treat them differently, even if you disagree with them, and start to build the empathy that allows you to put yourself in their shoes.
This idea was articulated succinctly one hundred years ago, in 1912. On a historic trip to North America, upon his release from a lifetime sentence as a prisoner of conscience when the Ottoman Empire fell, Abdul-Baha shared this thought:
Compare the nations of the world to the members of a family. A family is a nation in miniature. Simply enlarge the circle of the household and you have the nation. Enlarge the circle of nations and you have all humanity.
That’s a simple idea that most kids can get, and families can explore in their dinner table conversations. Hopefully, politicians can start to work together like members of a family, even if they disagree over who gets the first slice of cake.