Sunday, January 9, 2011

Politics and parenting

Politics is one of the few areas where I'm generally a cynic. I am about as interested in mud slinging between adults as I am in a yes-no tug of war between kids: as soon as someone calls someone else stupid, evil, or ridiculous, I tune out.When the finger pointing begins, I bow out. I go make chicken soup for a neighbor who has the flu, instead.

Some rare people -- Dr. Paul Farmer of Mountains Beyond Mountains fame, for example -- are able to balance the big and little pictures. Most of us, though, can only deal with whichever picture we're looking at. We're not very good at translating the real-life poverty of someone who lives in a rat-ridden tenement into effective social policies that are financially efficient and measurable. We're not even very thorough when it comes to finding out details that allow us to evaluate whether a given social policy is effective. So we tend to fill in the disconnect between the small picture (person suffering in slum) and the big picture (legislation or policy) with opinion.

Sadly, a lot of our opinions are based on a one-minute nightly news summary. We might supplement  with a quick look at an online news article, and a rare few doggedly buy a daily paper of quality and scour an article or two written by someone who did a few hours or days of research. The truth is, we often don't know what we're talking about.

One day recently Little Guy said something about Obama. Although it was a statement I agreed with, I looked at him and said, hopefully not unkindly, "When did you learn about health care policy?" And I realized two things: first, that I need to work more on helping my kids learn how to form opinions they can support with knowledge and facts. And second, that we adults need to be very, very careful what we say -- and how we say it -- when we voice opinions in front of our kids.

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I saw the horrible news last night about the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona. While my mind was reeling over six people dead, including a girl Snuggler's age, I opened Facebook and got another shock. There were several posts of breezy vitriol, most of the "Put Sarah Palin in the crosshairs" variety. (I have friends on both sides of the political divide.)

If we're going to take one lesson from the deaths of six people, I think it should be this: vitriol is vitriol. If you don't like the way someone talks, don't imitate it. No matter what your political bent may be, it's not okay to reduce the problem to someone else's stupidity, not okay to call your opponent a Hitler. When we vent with name-calling and heaping blame, we teach our kids that this is how we do things when we're upset: we attack.

We don't attack people. We attack problems. Kids need to know the difference. The strategy for dealing with problems like political vitriol and violence is, as my wise friend Elise put it, "Get sad, get mad, then get busy." If our kids don't see us sad but hear us mad, and then don't see us do anything about the problem, we've got a huge problem.

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