I'm a Democrat, he's a Republican. How do we talk to our kids about politics?

What Do Republicans Believe?
What Do Republicans Believe?

On a late October morning in 2012, I went to get my baby up from the crib. When I reached down to pick her up, I gasped. There she was, my sweet darling baby, wearing a "Mitt Romney for president" t-shirt.

My husband is a Republican and I am a Democrat. When we got married we both declared ourselves independent, but it soon became clear my independence was liberal-leaning and his was conservative.

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For the first five years of our marriage, we debated politics over dinner and before bed. But when our daughter was born, we toned things down. There were still tense moments watching political debates and arguments over the local-option sales tax, but we didn't want to make our children feel like they were in the middle of a battlefield.

As this election cycle drags on, the political rhetoric is becoming more heated, with the potential to divide parties and families. In March, Trump insulted Cruz's wife, Heidi. More recently, Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump exchanged barbs on Twitter.

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All this at a time when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters are hurling accusations over "Bernie bros."

While political rhetoric during election seasons has always been a little testy, it's hard to escape in an era of social media, memes and instant communication.

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When Steve Simon, 68, a doctor from Kansas City, was raising his daughters (now 36 and 39, respectively) he and his wife often disagreed about politics. But they made a rule not to fight about it in front of their children. "We tried to keep any fighting that was between us just between us. For our daughters, we let them ask us anything and tried to be as honest as we could with their answers."

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Simon is the only conservative in a family now filled with liberals. He doesn't recall any yelling over politics, just "general disagreements." But his daughter Jen Simon, 36, notes that her father has sent her and her sister a lot of conservative memes. "I told him he had to stop or I wouldn't talk to him anymore," she said.

Simon did stop and maintains a genial relationship with his children and grandchildren. He says, "Look, when it's all said and done, ultimately there isn't a right or wrong in politics. I just want my kids to know what they believe and why."

Jen says she and her parents have been able to make it work because they do their best not to make it personal.

Katie is 46 and lives in Pennsylvania with two kids, 8 and 12. A staunch Democrat, she co-parents with her ex husband, a Trump supporter. She declined to use her last name because she didn't want to embarrass her kids or her ex. Katie was also raised in a home where her parents disagreed on politics. They would openly discuss issues but refused to tackle individual candidates, leaving Katie and her siblings room to make up their own minds.

Katie takes the same approach to raising her children. She lets them know how she feels about political issues without injecting divisive political rhetoric. "I go back toward my parents' approach of maintaining silence. It doesn't help for me to say, 'Your dad's an idiot for supporting him.' That's the kind of inflammatory language that has roiled our country into the mess it's in right now."

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Fighting is a problem. Kim Simon, who recently wrote about the political division in her home forGood Housekeeping, notes, "We've learned the hard way that we need to watch our tone in front of the kids. They don't understand that we are having a 'friendly' debate, and when we raise our voices, they get concerned that we are fighting. " Simon is 38 and has two boys, 6 and 2. She and her husband focus their political discussions around the type of people they want their sons to become. "We both agree that we want the boys to grow up knowing that they should ask questions, be change-makers and have an opinion...It is our hope that we can both express our viewpoints in a way that lets the kids make their own decisions, but I also know that they will be influenced by the words that we use, the context that we give them and the paradigm that they grow up in."

Dr. Jen Thompson, a psychotherapist and co-author of When Sorry Isn't Enough, encourages parents in politically divisive homes to focus on their end goals. "Think beyond politics and decide who you want your children to be, then model that behavior."

Thompson notes that political division in a home is a great opportunity for parents to show their children how to disagree respectfully. "It's a chance to show your children how to politely say, 'I don't agree with you and here is why...' instead of launching into yelling or name-calling."

She recommends parents get ahead of political conversations by watching the news or political debates with their children and talking about it afterward as a family. "This is a great way to teach kids to talk about ideas instead of insults."

She suggests that families which are politically active but divided find nonpartisan ways to encourage involvement, such as taking children with you to vote and finding common causes the whole family can rally around. For instance, my family regularly collects supplies for the food pantry, and every year we fill backpacks for a local charity. Each action has political implications, but it puts our values in action. It's an impetus to talk about issues we feel passionately about, such as poverty, education and social justice.

The Romney shirt on my baby, as it turns out, was a joke, a lighthearted retaliation for me telling a local pollster that my husband was an "Obama man." But it gave us the chance to draw an early boundary with our kids — we won't take them to political rallies and make them tiny billboards for our beliefs. We promised to try and treat our differences with respect and kindness, so we can teach our kids the right way to disagree.

Originally published