Professor Profile

Politics have dominated conversation lately. Whether it be in the classroom or on social media, we are surrounded by controversial topics and often faced with tough decisions on how to discuss them, especially when we disagree.

Christine Rittenour spoke to Managing Editor Jennifer Gardner about how to discuss these topics and our opinions of them in the family setting, especially when explaining them to children.

Q. Should parents be concerned about influencing their children too much in terms of their identity or political affiliation?

A. I think parents have a really important job in being careful about how much they emphasize celebrating their pride in whatever identity that is, being it American, being a member of a certain religion, being a man, being a woman, whatever it is. Recognize that a lot of times the more that we’re proud of this group that we share, the more we communicate that pride, and if we’re not careful, we start to push away other groups. We might pass this on to our children, and they might dislike the groups we talk about negatively, those we scoff at, or those that we don’t ever mention. All of this can be dangerous—we don’t want members of these groups to be seen as less human, and that sounds drastic but if you aren’t careful your communication—even your pride—can lead to dehumanization of other groups. We don’t want that for our children. It is a challenge to say, "but others are valued, too and we are all humans." I also think it’s worth modeling good behavior toward all people, especially those with whom we do not agree.

Q. As a mother, have you ran into a "tough spot" when discussing the election?

A. Well my oldest son is eight and he’s at the age where they’ll talk about the election, so he would come home and ask a lot of questions. He heard much that was inaccurate so we’d address those ‘myths’ about the candidates, and about Democrats and Republicans. He caught an attack ad against Donald Trump that was showing the clips of negative things that he had said about women, and he asked questions about that. He said "why is he saying that? Why is he behaving that way?" In a way I was lucky—I know little about politics but I do know about communication, so I felt I could answer. I’m luckier still because he knows a lot about communication. He knows it’s wrong to talk about women—people—in that way, so it was a pretty comfortable conversation but I worried at first. Viewing dehumanizing language is upsetting to kids just like it’s upsetting to us. I also don’t want him thinking bad things about republicans because of those ads and how he sees me respond to what just one Republican is saying. I have to be careful. I don’t want him to draw a broad negative conclusion about any group.

Q. How can other parents approach this topic when their children have questions?

A. My top advice would be to follow kids’ leads, to listen carefully to what they ask and have them feel like they’re part of the conversation, rather than you talking at them. If they ask you how you feel about a certain view, be honest and clear in saying "this is my opinion," and then also talk about your reason for your opinion. The experience might even help you self-reflect, even change your mind.

Q. How should we express ourselves in conversations with family when we feel offended?

A. It often works to use simple, non-offensive statements like "I feel" statements. For instance, "I feel hurt when you say what you just said about women," or "I feel hurt when you say that about a certain religion." It doesn’t have to be about your group, either, it could be about others under attack. State your opinions as opinions and when it’s done, walk away from it and then come back to it later. Thank that person for talking about it and revisiting it, because it happens a lot in families. It’s awkward, it’s weird, and sometimes we even shut down, so revisit it when you’re comfortable. You might also reflect back as to whether or not you’ve spoken hastily about groups to which they belong.

Q. Do you have any suggestions for sharing our opinions on social media?

A. Think before you type. How do you want your kids and people who see this years down the line to see it? This represents you. Social media is great, it’s set up to be an asynchronous but we don’t always use it that way. Humor, as long as it isn’t offensive, can be a really great way to get a message of disagreement out there without being so threatening to the other person.