Why We Don't Tell Our Kids How We Vote

I realize this isn't for everyone.
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We have three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. I’m not sure when exactly my husband and I made the firm decision not to tell them how we vote, but I know it was when they were really young. Pre-political young. I remember one of them thought Barack Obama was the name of a candy bar.

I think it started as something of an experiment. We thought it could be beneficial to our kids and illuminating for us to see how their political beliefs developed if we exposed them to both sides of the debate. If we tried our best not to infuse our biases into their thought processes, yet demanded a certain degree of rigor. “I got it from the internet” is never the correct answer when offering support for your point of view, we would tell them.

In those early days, I guess you could say there were definitely some high falutin’ ideals behind our decision. We wanted to teach them how to think as opposed to what to think, in the hopes that it would make them more tolerant and less lazy. We didn’t like the tone that had crept into political discourse – the rants on social media and the everyday erasure of basic manners – and were hoping to help our kids become broad-minded enough to be comfortable outside of their own tribe.

But our decision was also rooted in how our own political opinions were formed as we grew into adulthood.

See, I was raised in a household of passionate beliefs formed by extraordinary circumstances. My grandparents and parents had front row seats for the Holocaust and the Cold War, and their true to life stories were more thrilling and heartbreaking than most feature films. They knew from their own personal experience what it was like to be cold, hungry, frightened and exiled. To have made their home in a new country, knowing they could never return to the place where they were born. To have learned a brand new language – taping lists of vocabulary words by the kitchen sink, at the bedside table, next to the toilet.

They also knew what it was like to work hard and claw their way up into the middle class, to feel the buzz of success and the joy of watching their kids take piano lessons, graduate from college, publish books in the language that had sounded like a garbled cassette tape to them only a couple of decades earlier.

I learned pretty early on that even some of the most “out there” convictions – conspiracy theories about Soviet-spy presidential candidates, for instance – weren’t the result of either ignorance or stupidity. They evolved out of experience: “I saw this happen in the old country and it could happen here.” Or perceptions of identity: “I am a good person. Good people don’t like poverty. Candidate X says he doesn’t like poverty, therefore I will vote for X.”

As a result, I never saw the other side as the villain. I just figured we wanted the same things, pretty much, but had a different idea of how to get there.

“Election time is hilarious around our house since the pollsters have no idea what to make of us.”

My husband was raised in a die-hard Democrat household where union wages put food on the table. His first job was doing opposition research for Democrat and former presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and it lit a fire to his innate passion for debate. He now works for corporations, politicians and trade associations and has to get his head around both sides of an argument on a daily basis. Election time is hilarious around our house since the pollsters have no idea what to make of us. We watch both Fox and MSNBC and have at one time or another subscribed to everything from Mother Jones to the Weekly Standard –- usually at the same time.

I guess you could say we were well prepared as we began the massive undertaking of making our kids do their own political due diligence.

And to be honest, we haven’t always been sure our way was going to work. There are a lot of opinions out there, and who’s to say our little darlings wouldn’t just slack off and glob onto one of those? My mother has certainly never hidden her political beliefs from them and gleefully tries to influence their thinking.

“We decided to actively play devil’s advocate for every single issue and try to give the best possible arguments for both sides -– even on opinions that inflame our passions.”

We understood early on that we couldn’t just sit back and do nothing more than refuse to divulge anything either. We had no intention of leaving our kids to navigate the political spectrum and corresponding media circus alone. As exhausting as the prospect was, we decided to actively play devil’s advocate for every single issue and try to give the best possible arguments for both sides -– even on opinions that inflame our passions.

It’s a lot of work and tipping our hand has always been a concern.

But all in all, I think we’ve done a pretty good job with confusing our children as much as we confuse the pollsters. At one point this summer, our son did a 180 between whether we were Democrats or Republicans about six times, until finally giving up and stating, “You two are evil.”

Now, I realize our way is not the way for everyone. Nor do I advocate that it should be.

If the very thought of one or more of your children potentially forming a political belief that doesn’t reflect your own is deeply upsetting to you, then you might think we’ve done a lousy job. Only one of our kids has fully taken on our top-secret political views. Another refuses to tell us (we deserve that one), while still another is way off the reservation.

But overall, things have turned out well so far.

Some of the most hilarious, thoughtful and downright brilliant political observations have come from our children. That alone has been worth it. Having to consistently argue the other side has also enabled us to keep learning and has even forced us to rethink or at least introduce more nuance into some of our most staunchly held beliefs. Even on hot topics such as abortion, capital punishment and racism.

“We hope we’ve given our children the tools to be as open and conscientious throughout their lives as they have been during this admittedly bizarre election cycle.”

And it’s nothing short of amazing to watch how our kids’ innate personality traits influence their judgements. How being outdoorsy, interior, overly sensitive, chronically ill or even musical plays its role in the way conclusions are drawn, values are interpreted. It has helped us understand them better and established yet another layer of trust that we hope will keep them close to us during their more turbulent years.

Surely, their current political opinions will evolve and change. Come five or 10 years from now, our children’s notions of politics and the world at large might look nothing like they do now.

People evolve.

Political parties flip-flop.

The world moves on from our youthful perceptions.

Sometimes we discover we were just plain wrong.

And we hope we’ve given our children the tools to be as open and conscientious throughout their lives as they have been during this admittedly bizarre election cycle. We hope they don’t lose their temper too often when faced with beliefs that contravene their own. We hope they maintain their sense of humor and build a thick skin. Most of all, we hope they remain gracious towards all citizens of our great country, and retain their ability to change their minds. To us, that’s success.

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