Q&A: talking and thinking about conflict

So sorry yesterday's only post was about laser hair removal! I had every intention of posting another one, but then got completely engrossed in the inauguration here in the States to the extent that I forgot to edit and post my inauguration-related post. So, now I'm a day behind. Here's what was supposed to post yesterday:

Jennie writes:

"This isn't a burning question, but it's causing me some stress. My third-grader has been coming home from school kind of upset because he's been hearing kids talking about some of the stuff we talk about at home–politics, religion, etc.–and the kids are saying things that are the opposite of what we teach at home. How do I explain that people can have different opinions so that he understands that the other kids not agreeing with us doesn't mean we're wrong?"

This is a tough topic. And I disagree that it's not a burning question. Especially on the day we get a new President here in the US, this question and how we deal with it is going to have way more impact on our children and countries in the long run than anything having to do with sleep, eating, pooping, tantrums, etc. All that stuff is going to end (even if we do nothing about it), but how we get along as people with diverse positions on important issues is something that never ends and affects every aspect of our lives, in big ways and small ones.

It seems to me like this is kind of a matrix, and if we could agree on the dimensions we'd be in business. On one axis I see issues that have an absolute value vs. issues that are subjective. On the other axis I'd put things that we need to have dialogue about to come to better understanding vs. things we can just agree to disagree about. So you'd have four squares: absolutes that we need to talk about, absolutes that we agree to disagree about, subjective things that we need to talk about, and subjective things that we can just agree to disagree about.

The problem, of course, is that there's no way to come to any common understanding about what fits into any one category. I think most of us would say that "basic human rights" are in the absolute category. But what's one person's basic human right is another's privilege or even frill. And what's worth talking about and what's OK to just leave alone and disagree about?

It seems to me that each needs to be able to stay meta enough in the process to realize that what's important to you may not be important to someone else. And that sometimes people just don't have enough information to make an informed decision, and sometimes they have made an informed decision and it's just not the one you came to.

Once you understand that disagreeing doesn't mean good vs. bad, then you can move forward and figure out what goes in which categories for you, and help your kids get to that point, too. Helping them figure out what they really believe (even if it's different from what you believe!) is a way of helping them develop both strong analytic skills and a strong moral code. And the way to do that is to talk and talk and talk. Let in information that conflicts with what you believe, and talk about that. Ask your son what the other kids are saying, and try to figure out how they came to that point of view. Understanding that side will help you see things from other angles and refine your own views (and be able to defend them intelligently without getting upset).

Disagreement and being able to assimilate and analyze new information is what creates sharp, layered minds. So don't be afraid of the conflicting views. Turn it into a game at the dinner table if you want to by talking about why a view makes sense and why it doesn't. (For those of you who've taken the LSAT, remember the section in which you read an argument and figure out where it's weak?) Let your kids know that information won't hurt them.

How much talking do you guys do about current events, religion, politics, ethical dilemmas, etc? (We've been having lots of discussions about Gaza right now, and were talking constantly during the 2008 elections.) Are there areas in which you feel like you get stuck? How affected do your kids seem to be by the things their peers say? Do any of you live in places where your views are the minority, and how does that affect how you talk to your kids? How old are/were your kids when you started talking about differences?

36 thoughts on “Q&A: talking and thinking about conflict”

  1. I am drawing your matrix right now, and putting on the pile of fun things to talk about with my kids. Even just presenting them the idea of such a matrix is helpful, I think!!

  2. We live in the DC ‘burbs, so politics is unavoidable. I think we’ve been lucky in that our kids’ love of “Why” questions — which so often irritate the crap outta me — are a very useful way to approach differences in politics in a fairminded way.”Why would someone do X?” gives us a chance to explain the opposition in the fairest terms possible: “They think people do a better job of X if Y.” And yes, eventually this leads to our explaining that we don’t think that because Z, but it keeps us from demonizing the other side.

  3. My 2 month old is not encountering this problem yet, but I can remember a time when this was a big issue for me. I was 9 in the Bicentennial year of 1976, and our 3rd grade class was selected each to write a patriotic paragraph about how great America is, to be placed in our town’s City Hall. I wrote (in my best cursive handwriting):”America is very beautiful and very good. But it has its bad points, too. So the best thing to do is to help as much as you can.”
    I got in BIG trouble when I handed it in- sent to the Principal’s office, etc. “What’s wrong with America? Why do you think it is bad?” – the subtext being, “What’s wrong with YOU?”. Here’s what my parents did – they were outraged. My mother, a staunch Republican who finished her education at 12th grade, and never read newspapers or books other than romance novels, came to school guns blazing! She informed the principal and my teacher the whole point of America is to be a place where differing views and opinions are allowed, and that questioning things can be one of the highest expressions of patriotism. And that omitting my paragraph from the display would be a poor example to set for the rest of the kids, because an opinion that’s hushed up doesn’t actually go away, it just goes into hiding. So it went up with the rest.
    Way to go, mom!

  4. eccentriclibertarian – As a fellow libertarian, I found that refreshing. Reminds me of something that happened at Sunday School when I was a kid (who did not believe!).What do I do when the teachers/caregivers are almost indoctrinating my pre-schooler with beliefs I don’t share? This isn’t an issue for me as far as I know, but on the news, I saw that all the local schools were doing things to celebrate the inauguration (great! constitution, peaceful transfer of power, representation, etc), but it almost seemed like they were trending into Cult of Personality. How do you (tactfully) explain to a teacher that politics is personal, and we should not influence children one way or another? Steven Landsburg has a great example of this (regarding recycling) in his book Everyday Economics.
    My husband and I talk about issues all the time in front of our 3-year old. I suppose we are teaching him our values this way.

  5. @eccentriclibrarian, YAY for your mom! WOO!And yeah. That. Discuss, ponder, wonder, ask.
    I like the matrix idea – it allows a clear discussion of what is usually muddy waters. What goes here, vs there, why, under what conditions, how do we assign the values?
    It’s like the framework of values in general – we can all agree on things like safety, respect, kindness, but what exact behaviors qualify for each? That’s going to differ by family (which is one reason I like it – it also differs by age, personality, life conditions, etc.).
    I’m actually dealing with some of this in my job right now, because I’m working with conflicting priorities and absolutes, subtext-that-shall-not-be-discussed and things that people think are okay – and they’re different. It’s a macrocosm, because I’m working across cultures – translating from Indian culture to US culture. But it is the same discussion – what do people really believe, under their behavior and choices, and how do we address that? What can we address openly, and hope to influence/change? What can we address openly but cannot hope to change? What cannot even be addressed openly but must be managed? What can we not address openly and understand that it cannot be messed with even in a business context?
    We addressed these issues first with religion, because we’re not in a mainstream religion (Quaker/UU). There is at least a general respect for Quakers, but UU’s get either confusion or jokes (most of which I find funny, myself, though). So, try explaining to the three year old why his friend says he must believe in Jesus or he’ll go to hell. Try explaining why his friend is genuinely worried for him, and why his worry doesn’t need to change his beliefs or expectations. Why are we kind to his friend, even when it appears that his friend is wishing ill on him?
    Understanding that we’re all different and believe different things – even within our family – is core to our values. It may be harder to discuss if your values don’t also include acceptance of individual paths. It is entirely possible that at least one of my kids will find another religion suits them better – certainly Mr B has a greater affinity for Christianity – even Catholicism – than the rest of us. But the UU side of me says that each person finds their own way, and the Quaker side of me says that the relationship with the Divine is a personal one and not for me to choose for another.
    Not that hard to take that to politics, I find. My very best friend from forever is absolutely the far side of the universe from me politically. We have very small segments of politics we can discuss, but they are microscopic. We agree to disagree, and to not discuss. In other areas of life we agree closely.
    My SIL is also in another place from me – maybe not as hard/far, but nearly. But between the two of us, there is no boundary for discussion – every-blessed-thing is fair game. We’re both open to learning something from the other, and we each have done so. It’s a much more comfortable place for me, but mainly because that is where I live, values-wise – I’m into the discovery process, and would rather discover an uncomfortable truth than continue living with a comfortable error.
    It is easy in our family, because there is so much diversity among the people we love best. Not huge racial/ethnic range (though some), but a full range from pro-life to pro-choice, republican and democrat and independent, Catholic to Baptist to Jewish to Quaker to Pagan, domestic-centric to global-focus action orientations… and we get together to discuss our options when it is time to vote, and time to donate – collectively – to charity (which we do around Thanksgiving, as a family, separately from our individual actions). All this difference is what keeps us together, IMHO – being comfortable with talking about those differences keeps them from ever becoming a divide. I cannot imagine any one of my siblings breaking off a family relationship over a difference in belief. It just can’t happen.
    That’s one of my goals for my kids – that they grow up to be comfortable with how each of them is different from each other, and from those they bring into the family as well. Making that central to *being* family means I don’t have to worry about their adult-to-adult relationships as much. It also makes it easier to make friends, be friends, and stay friends with those we choose to be friends with, and without setting boundaries that could divide us – certainly I would have never had as good a birth experience with Mr G as I did without my friend there with me, serving as a doula.

  6. We’ve come up against this recently in regard to California’s Prop. 8 – the anti-gay marriage bill. Two of the five families in our playgroup have gay parents, and we’d talked about it as one of the many ways families can be different. No problem. But then he overheard me discussing Prop 8 with a (married, gay) playgroup dad – and wanted to know what *that* was about. I explained that “some people don’t believe that A.’s parents should get to be married like Mommy and Daddy can, because they’re both daddies. But we think they should, because they love each other and it’s fair…” And so on.T. thought about it a bit, then said that he thinks they should get to be married too, and they’re nice daddies. So so far we’re on the same page. :->
    But it saddened me so much – not just the whole issue of the proposition passing, but looking at a future where I have to break it to my child that unfair things (and even horrible things – we’ve started tiptoeing around the ideas of war and death) happen, and yes, we can create change and make things better, etc. – but sometimes grownups can’t just fix it.

  7. @Moxie, I love the matrix idea.@SarcasticCarrie- I hear where you’re coming from, but I actually think your kid will figure it out when the time comes. I grew up in a liberal family living in a very conservative place. My teachers often said things that my parents didn’t agree with. My best friends in grade school were both fundamentalist Christians who firmly believed my entire family was going to Hell. I heard more about God than you’d think was legal in a public school. I’m sure I came home occasionally spouting something that horrified my parents.
    I don’t remember my parents doing anything specific to combat this, but my beliefs today are closer to my parents’ than to the rest of the community I grew up in.
    You, as the parents, create the most important aspects of the environment in which your child will grow up. Trust yourself- I think you’ll find the right way to talk to your child about differing opinions at the right time.

  8. @Sarcasticarrie re: Cloud’s comment – the less you make the discussion into a hammer, the less they can use it to beat you with later. Basically, address it only when it comes up, and don’t go nuts on it.The people I knew growing up who had real issues with the ‘I choose to be different than my parents in order to cause them pain’ were the ones whose parents made big hairy deals about things like the teachers leaning to one viewpoint. Address it, but gently – and yes, you’ll know when to do so. Just do so out of love, rather than fear, and you won’t create a bigger issue than you are trying to prevent.
    I think that’s what I was vaguely aiming for in my statement-of-length (heh) about the ease of conversation about differences. The more WE are easy with it, the more THEY are easy with it. The more we’re uptight about it, the more they will be, too, and not always in the ways we want them to be.
    Actually, it’s not that far off from the open-casket discussion, no? We set the stage with our attitudes, expectations, and reactions. The kids will read what is normal based on what we treat as normal.

  9. My 4yo son is at a Baptist preschool, his grandparents are Lutheran, his aunts are lesbian and our family is Unitarian Universalist (UU). I usually start my conversations with “Some people believe…” and I then say, “but our family believes…”. My minister helped me out with this one. He believes it’s ok to simply tell your child what your family believes, then remind him that someday he might decide he believes something different. Reassure him that it won’t make you angry at him or make either of you wrong. If we were all the same and all had the same ideas, life would be boring. Even my four year old gets that.My seven year old had a lot of questions about the Secret Service and why they were all over yesterday. I explained that Obama is now one of the most powerful people in the world and even though lots of people love him and love our country there are also people who hate him and hate our country and would like to hurt him to get at us. He seemed to be able to process that with his other knowledge about history (MLK) and politics.
    It becomes an ongoing conversation. And, like any tough topic (religion, politics, sex) it gets easier the more you discuss it all.

  10. Six months ago we moved from a place where our left-liberal views were the majority, to a place where our views now are the minority. When DS starts talking someday, he’ll definitely be a part of the daily conversations we have at home about politics, religion, philosophy, history, the media, etc.I think old school etiquette can also help us here, as we consider the difference between speech at home and speech in public. In most parts of the country, it’s still generally considered very impolite to publicly discuss Politics, Religion, or Sex. This etiquette gem is as old as the hills, dating back to even before our country was first formed. When people of different religions, ethnicities, and social classes started interacting together they needed some rules to play by.
    I know someday DS is going to come home from school (just like I did years ago) telling us how a classmate said he’s “going to hell,” or how he heard someone use a racial or sexual slur. That’s where we’ll have to have a little talk with the teacher about the kid who doesn’t know their etiquette & proper public behavior (and of course, privately I’ll be thinking what trashy parents the poor kid must have!) If it’s my kid who crosses the line talking “leftist” talk to a classmate whose family isn’t down with it, the same conversation will apply: Sorry, it’s not just not good etiquette.
    I know thinking about this as an etiquette issue tends to greatly oversimplify things. As children get older, these kind of hard topics are natural & inevitable; but hopefully the kids will learn to wait until they have an established friendship with someone and have felt out where they stand on the issues before they broach the topic, privately. No one likes a “level jumper!”

  11. As a visual person, I love the idea of a matrix! That really helps me, and I’m going to talk over that idea with my husband. My toddler is still too young to understand, but I imagine we’ll need to be ready for these conversations sooner than I think.One thing we do that I think will help our child(ren) is discuss openly our difference of opinions with our family and friends. My husband and I are pretty much the only democrates in our very republican families, but in general we can all discuss many different topics respectfully. Although we leave many things in the agree to disagree column, we are able to talk about most things to at least understand why those we are so close to have come to very different stances on certain things. I’m sure we will continue to do this in front of our child(ren) so that they will see us modeling the behavior of agreeing to disagree and discussing differences without it leading to being closed off from one another.
    @eccentriclibertarian – Way to go, Mom! That’s a great story.
    @hush – If I may, I respectfully disagree with abiding by the old etiquette of not discussing politics, religion or sex. I think by leaving those topics open to discussion we can learn a lot from each other. But it must be a respectful conversation. No slurs or rudeness. And I hope that my child(ren) will at least not even say “you’re wrong” to another. In this diverse country with our freedom of speech, I truly believe that by listening and talking about our differences we can better understand each other and cohabitate. I understand it was important for previous generations to not discuss those things, but they also lived in very segmented communities (this is a generalization, but accurate for many areas). Now that we are much more mixed in our communities, I think it’s important that we keep the communication open even in these areas.
    As a side note, when I discuss certain sensitive topics with my inlaws, they are completely surprised by my thoughts on those subjects. They live in an area where the thinking seems (to me) to be very homogenized so they say certain things not even imagining that there are different views on those topics. I will usually speak up and mention the opposing view (sometimes even if I don’t believe in it) and the reasons behind those views. I really think it’s good for them to hear other views and really, truly SEE that an intelligent, loving, Christian woman who they love can logically believe another viewpoint. It’s not always black and white. Luckily, they are openminded to the discussions, even though we usually agree to disagree.
    (Sorry that was so long and rambling. And probably full of typos.)

  12. @caramama – I LOVE your last paragraph. Even though I am on the same page with my in-laws religiously speaking, we actually see very differently on many topics. They tend to state things in a very black and white manner which gets to me. I wish that they were more open to discussion and that they would see me as an “intelligent, loving, Christian woman” who can have another viewpoint, as you say. Instead, they get a bit uncomfortable when I rock the boat, so I tend to just bite my tongue and not say anything at all.Sorry to comment on something a bit off-topic…

  13. @caramama and kyma–I spend an inordinate amount of mental and verbal energy trying to force my MIL to admit that another intelligent, loving Christian person might have a differing and reasonable view. I don’t even necessarily disagree with her; I just argue the validity of the other view because I want so badly for her to have a gray crayon. Just one. I’m not even hoping for several shades here, just a third one to go with the black one and the white one! My goal in 2009 has been to accept her as is, without trying to change her. Because, really, by trying to change her view of her own absolute rightness, I am behaving as if my belief in nuance is more right. =) Perhaps the world is only black and white. Who am I to force my views on her?

  14. My boys are too young to have come across this yet, however at the dinner table my husband and I discuss everything, and we don’t always agree. I’m a devout contrarian and have had many conversations with my ILs that sound similar to caramama’s.I do believe that we are setting the seeds for later discussions with boys with simple things now, like how some families have different rules than others. I think most Moxites are already doing that.

  15. @Amanda Too – I am right there with you, only it’s with my long time friend (20+ years), who lost all her gray crayons about 36 hours after she got pregnant and dropped out of college 18 years ago this coming May.With my 5 year old, I tell her that “some people believe x, but we believe y” and I try to answer her questions honestly, while being respectful of the other view, even when the other view makes me cringe.

  16. I will add that there are some issues that I just don’t even attempt to talk about with my inlaws. Keeping a good relationship with them is more important to me than those topics which don’t affect us every day. Also, I never expect to change their minds or make them think another way. But they are very respectful of my views and at least open minded to what I say, even when they don’t agree. This can’t be said of all of my extended inlaw relatives, so I know I’m luckily that at least my husband’s immediate family is open to listening.Good luck to everyone else trying to figure out how to navigate with their inlaws! It’s not easy!

  17. I am going to use your matrix in my discussions with my son’s father and both our mothers 😉 Thanks a lot!But I think we’re in serious trouble if we accept that “one person’s basic human right is another’s privilege or even frill.” There are legally binding documents defining this, and it doesn’t matter if we disagree, all of us have these rights.

  18. A family friend once asked me, when she was six, whether God did exist or not. I told her that people believe different things and that while I believe there is a God, her father doesn’t, and people are free to believe what they want.She looked at me, upset as if I had tried to outsmart her, and said “I don’t want to know about beliefs. I want to know: Is there a God, or isn’t there?”

  19. @caramama – I have a feeling you and I would probably agree on quite a lot if we were to sit down and discuss the “Big Three.” 😉 And I hear you on the benefits of respectful dialogue in general. If memory serves, you’re in DC (is mama fogginess hitting me?), a place where, my guess is, Politics is considered something totally acceptable for polite, public conversation. So it seems there are regional differences, and places where people think the old school etiquette no longer has any real social relevance. I respect that. But I don’t live there.I guess I am a bit of a cynic. As much as I love to talk about Sex, I realize I would offend most people because I’m pretty sick & twisted. 😉 And Religion? Yikes… a no-go area unless we’re in the same pew, know what I mean? Just keeping in real here – I honestly wonder what good can come from me sitting down with my 80 year old neighbor lady, telling her all about my pro-choice views, while she responds with an anecdote about the anti-abortion rally she went to last week. No one, no matter how persuasive they are, is going to be able to influence some views of mine, and I’m sure that holds true for a lot of folks – it’s wasted breath. My point is, there are some topics within those Big Three that don’t **actually** bring people closer together, or make everyone more open-minded & appreciative of diversity by rehashing them. Much easier to be pleasant & politely respectful with people you’re not all THAT close with and/or to whom you’re not related. Now, it’s different if someone ASKS what I think about topic X. Otherwise, to me, it’s kind of like unsolicited advice. I don’t really know how to say this, but I get wanting to make the world a better place through good conversations about hard-hitting topics… it’s just not my bag, even with people who agree with me.
    I hope you’re not thinking I’m this anti-free speech person. “Freedom of speech” is a phrase we throw around a lot, but according to the fine print it really only applies in relation to acts of the government. You already know it, but there’s no protected “right to free speech” between private citizens. So I don’t have to listen to telemarketers, my pro-life neighbor, my Dittohead FIL, etc. That’s what makes America great. That, and people like eccentriclibrarian’s awesome mom!

  20. Hedra: I hope you’ve told her that :DI was actually her au pair, and her parents are now my son’s godparents (liked what you wrote on choosing relatives). I really look forward to the day when my son (just turned 2) is that verbal, we had the most amazing conversations.

  21. @hush – You make excellent points on all areas. I do indeed live in the DC area, where certainly politics is a constant topic of discussion, as are issues that come up in relation to sex, politics, human rights, etc. Thanks for reminding me that my location does make a difference, because you are 100% right about that.Also, you got me thinking. I don’t discuss any of this with my 94 year old grandmother, because it’s just not worth it. It’s better to avoid these kinds of conversations with her, but it doesn’t lead to anywhere good. Sometimes, she surprises me, but coming from a different era, her views in general are very different from mine. Even I don’t talk about these topics with her.
    I don’t at all consider you anti-free speech. In fact, my husband (who comes from a different area) often says that he doesn’t talk politics or religion with other people (this is why I have the discussion with his parents, not him). And he is very pro-freedom of speech. In addition to what you said, to me freedom of speech includes the right to not speak about certain topics if you don’t want to.
    Thanks for responding further with your view points. You really clarified some thoughts of mine as well.

  22. What a great conversation. And you’re reminding me, once again, why I so treasure the memory of my grandfather, who died recently at 92: when he asked you what you thought about one of these tough topics, he genuinely wanted to know. And he never stopped thinking or changing his mind, and in fact thought gay Boy Scout leaders were just great. I want to be like him when I’m old. (/tangent)I also think it’s important to *openly discuss it* if, for example, your child is attending a Catholic school or other school associated with a religion, and you have different beliefs or values. I went to an elementary school that was run by what I now recognize to be a very, very conservative Protestant denomination, and am from a liberal Episcopal family. I picked up some conservative thoughts and beliefs from school that I’m quite sure my parents would be horrified by, and didn’t really recognize what had happened until I was almost out of college — I’d have this “where did THAT come from” reaction when one of these things bubbled up. Now, my parents were very involved, and on more than one occasion my mother scolded the headmaster about this type of thing, but I don’t remember ever having a conversation with them about these differences — and as a kid, you’re not necessarily aware enough of the subtext to bring it up yourself. This is quite a ramble but I hope I’ve made some sense here — bottom line, kids pick up on more of that type of thing than you might realize.

  23. I remember a conversation with my uncle, he was the one who explain to me all people are different.I don’t remember the exact words, but it was. But I’m trying to remember it to say it to my children…
    I remember, People see and think different because it’s the way we see the world
    As you see a person in danger, you want help.. some others will be more concern about why or avoid those dangerous situations…
    Their lives and experiences make people different.
    We have to accept that, because toughts are not wrong, those are a different way to see the world

  24. This is a difficult situation… specially because the way we explain to them will be how they persive and manage difficult situations in life.It’s important to make them understand people see things different.. and it’s important to be open mind about it.. not making conflicts about it

  25. Every man has to give an account to God in the day of juegemdnt of every idle word he speaks so you need Yahshua to erase your bad words and give you his new living way to be holy. Everyman who has the hope of eternal life purify’s himself and those who are mocking don’t know what they will miss and what punishment they will get for continuing in dark world ideas.Awake to right thinking and sin not With his help of course, the eternal awaits you!!!

  26. Any blood at all kind of nixes the riieglon of peace thing, and i can’t back a riieglon that hates me for how i was made i’m afraid.Until Christianity stops brainwashing children and forcing their agenda of hate, and ignorance, i will continue to dislike them.Not only that, but stop trying to affect the country, this country was founded on separation of church and state for a reason. While i understand but we aren’t all like that! Some of you are, and that’s enough.

  27. Hey, just responding to your comenmt. Not really sure what you can do with a B.S. in Bible. Seriously. I started doing customer service work after college, got into doing secretarial work and discovered I was good at it and that has become my career. I supposed the degree could be used for teaching Bible, being in missions, that sort of thing. Thanks for stopping by!

  28. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this site. I’m hoping to see the same high-grade blog posts from you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own, personal blog now 😉

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