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Politics on the playground: Parents' views clash in election season

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For the kids -- try to keep the politics out of the drop-off line.

By Jacoba Urist, TODAY contributor

With the second presidential debate tonight, election season is coming down to the wire. And this race touches on so many political flash points for many of us (like health care, same-sex marriage, taxes), that some parents are having trouble keeping party lines out of the drop-off lines.

While political differences are a fact of life, being too vocal about your point of view can affect the relationships with the people you want to get along with the most -- if only for your kids' sake, and because you have to see them on a regular basis. So when should you let your political flag fly? When should you lay low in front of other parents? And how do you teach your children to have a healthy, open political discussion this election season?   

Shannon Patricia and her five children, ages 2 to 16, live in Hindsville, Ark., and the political rhetoric in her community has gotten so polarizing this fall that she’s decided not to talk politics with any of the other parents if she can possibly avoid it. After years of being one of the only liberal moms in the neighborhood, she's learned it's better not to stir the pot, even if other people don't always keep their political distance from her children. 

“I keep the communication with other parents I run into as minimal as I can. Otherwise, things can get very uncomfortable,” she explains. “Most of them will sit away from us now anyway, like they might catch something from our political beliefs. Or some folks will try really hard to change our point of view by invoking God or religion, even when one of our children goes to a sleepover or to play at someone’s house. The parents will try to ‘give our kid direction.’”

Jennifer Williams is in a similar boat. A Texas mom of two young kids and a writer who’s not afraid to tackle political issues on her blog, Williams still tries to avoid touchy subjects with other parents in-person. Because she often has a hard time keeping quiet when another parent bashes her candidate or her party, she says she’s learned that it’s better to just walk away whenever people start talking about the election. 

Bridging the political divide isn't any easier on social media. After a few politically charged Facebook tussles this fall, Williams realized that it’s better to avoid outright conflict with the people she has to see in “real life.”  

“I try very hard to ignore the posts that I disagree with, but occasionally I react,” she says. “Most recently, [a friend] posted a negative update about ‘those people who don’t pay taxes.’…I’ve learned that instead of posting on the person’s status update and creating additional conflict, it’s easier to just post my counter opinion as [my own] status update.”

The closer we get to election day, the more parents on both sides of the fence are feeling the sting when they log on to their Facebook accounts.

“I scroll past [other parents’] posts smashing our president,” says LaVon Shearer-Ihrig, who lives in Alaska with her three children. And while she and her husband don’t always see eye-to-eye — and may vote for different candidates on Nov. 6 — unlike her friends on Facebook, they’ve found a way to engage in productive, positive debates in front of their children about political issues.  “I think it’s a healthy way for children to learn compromise and the process of discussing politics in a civil manner,” she explains.

In fact, the way your family talks about the election can directly affect how your children express themselves at school. In some cases, dialing down your political passion at the dinner table may help teens develop their own, well-informed arguments about social and economic policy, experts say. After all, your child learns a lot by watching you engage about your politics with other people, and like anything else, they may model their behavior on the way you handle interactions with other parents. 

“Family plays a big role in what high schoolers say,” according to Emma Frey, a history teacher in the Northeast for almost 30 years. “Students whose parents are quieter about their political views tend to be less vocal [about politics in class].” Frey usually assumes that students are parroting their parents unless she knows that they have taken the initiative to read and cite news articles, or are participating in extracurricular activities that help them form their opinions independently.

But encouraging older teens to form strong political beliefs can come with its own set of parenting challenges. 

Linda Greiff Richmand, a career and parenting coach, lives in what she characterizes as a predominantly liberal town, and recalls her son’s first day in 11th grade social studies. His teacher asked all the students who considered themselves to be Democrats to go to one side of the room, and Republicans to the other. Her son ended up standing alone, the only conservative in the room. Years later, she is still proud of her son for sticking up for his political views, even if other parents sometimes warned her that it might not be in her son's best interest to do so. When Richmand's son applied to colleges, he chose to write his personal statement with a particular political slant that some of her friends thought was far too conservative for the admissions offices he was applying to. They advised Richmand that he would be better off writing about something else-- or dialing down his political point of view. In the end, Richmand says, her son submitted the essay as-is and got into his top choices.

So what is the best way to teach your child about political differences? Dr. Lawrence Balter is a child psychologist, parent educator and author of “Not In Front Of The Children: How To Talk To Your Child About Tough Family Matters,” and he tells folks, as the election heats up the next few weeks, don’t isolate yourself from other parents in your community — even if you’re in the minority.  Show your child how to politely demur when a political topic comes up, and use the opportunity to talk to them about how it feels to be outside of the mainstream.

“And if your child is old enough,” says Lawrence, “ask what he or she thinks of the political beliefs in question.” At the same time, he says, don’t forget that you are the parent. You get to set certain standards in your home based on your political value system. You don’t have to pretend to agree with both sides of every situation. But he explains, “it’s also incredibly important for children to learn the difference between intellectual discussion and emotional responses.” 

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