By Sharon Holbrook
There’s a lot to be said for finding your tribe, a group of people that understand and accept your worldview—without it having to be defended or explained all the time. It’s comfortable. And, certainly, as parents we want to make our home that sort of place, a place where we can convey our most deeply-held values to our children.
The tricky part, however, is that we, and our children, are people of the world. Snuggling into the simple rhetoric of “we are right, and they are wrong”—or just living an isolated life without comment or examination—may feel good and safe, but it does nothing to prepare our kids for the diverse, divided and complex reality outside the home. We owe it to our children, and our pluralistic society, to walk them by the hand through the gray areas and the discomfort that comes from seeking truth and humanity in all types of people and all types of viewpoints.
In this election year, my kids have been newly interested in politics, much to my delight. They ask, “What are Republicans and Democrats?” and, tellingly, “Which one are we?” Their father and I have carefully answered, trying to describe the parties as objectively as possible, and we felt successful in that when our older two kids immediately declared their loyalties on different sides of the aisle. (I’m not counting the response of the youngest, a five-year-old who declared, “I want to be a Republican because I like elephants.”)
It’s not that all values are the same, nor that we shouldn’t have strongly held beliefs on moral and political issues. Instead, it’s that no matter what our values, we must show our children that all viewpoints are worthy of examination and all humans are worthy of our sincere attempts to understand. How else can we understand each other well enough to strive for consensus or, at least, compromise?
I don’t see a lot of this from the adults in my life, people who are setting examples for their children and, maybe, for mine. We get offended, and we lop the disagreeing Facebook friend out of our social circle. We seek out the periodicals, Twitter feeds, political candidates, neighborhoods, and TV shows that cozily reinforce our view of the world and join us in righteous anger. We often try to shape this world for our children, too, and to villainize or exclude that which doesn’t match.
What I see behind the distaste for the different is an undercurrent of bafflement. We just don’t understand each other. Our country seems more divided than ever politically, and this election year is a magnifying glass held up to vast class and geographic gaps in how Americans live and work and think.
For our children, this means they are likely to be stranded on one cultural side or the other. Do your children know more gay people, or more evangelical Christians? Do your children ride in pickup trucks and go fishing, or do they live in a metropolitan area where most of their neighbors have college degrees? On the face of it, these either-ors aren’t mutually exclusive. Why couldn’t a family have both gay friends and evangelical Christian friends? Certainly, they could, but it’s not the norm. The norm is two cultural camps on either side of a wide canyon joined by precious few bridges.
There’s been a fascinating quiz circulating recently. The quiz, which ultimately asks, “Do you live in a bubble?,” comes from libertarian political scientist Charles Murray. Murray developed it based on his analysis that much of white, educated, well-off America lives together in cloistered pockets, completely out of touch with how most Americans live. It asks questions about things like whether the reader has friends with radically different political views, about the professions of the reader’s parents, and the reader’s experience working on a factory floor or in a physically exhausting job. It also asks about seemingly trivial things like purchases of pick-up trucks and domestic beer, as well as TV-viewing habits and chain restaurant patronage.
The quiz highlights a gulf between ordinary and elite Americans that can translate into a total lack of understanding about specific issues. Consider the flap over immigration, abortion rights or gun control, and show me the rare soul who truly understands the reasoning and motivation of those on both sides of the issue. Then show me the even rarer soul who helps their child understand both sides on the way to presenting their own view.
Without practicing curious, respectful engagement ourselves, we can’t expect to pass it on to our children. I’m reminded of when our eldest was settling into his “terrible twos.” My husband and I went to a parenting class, expecting to find out how to stop the tantrums. Instead, we learned a lot about keeping our cool and providing calm limits. We went to learn to discipline a toddler, but instead we learned how to behave like adults and not throw our own tantrums. Likewise, teaching a child to explore and embrace the gray areas is a lot about getting there ourselves.
Luckily, our own kids will help us get there, if we expose them to all kinds of people and are willing to go into the gray with them. Real diversity—diversity of experience, background, belief—gets uncomfortable, and our kids will ask us the questions we don’t know how to answer. Your atheist-raised child will be interested in God and want to attend church with a friend, and you will have to reconcile the certainty you thought you had with your desire to respect your child’s curiosity and her friend’s beliefs. A grandparent will express a political view that you find repugnant, and you will be called on to reconcile love and ugliness.
None of this is easy, but our children’s lives will be richer, truer, and more fully human if they learn to sit with the discomfort of difference, and maybe even learn to appreciate it. That goes for their parents, too.
Sharon is a writer and a mother of three. While she tries to see both sides of every story, she will never understand why her children insist on leaving inside-out socks strewn all over the house. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and at sharonholbrook.com.