Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents’ Political Rants Are Upsetting

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I grew up in a household in which religion and politics were very important. After I moved away and put myself through college, I formed views contrary to those of my parents. As a result, they laughingly refer to me as “their failure.”

I am now married to a great guy (we are alike in our thinking) and have two children, a boy, 12, and a girl, 6. My parents live near us, so we get together often. My parents have always been forceful and opinionated, but they have become even worse since it looks like “their guy” is going to be a presidential nominee. They rant and rave about how right this candidate is in all his positions, many of which my husband and I find scary and contrary to the values we’re trying to instill in our children.

How can we tactfully get them to tone down their rants, or even better yet, just stop doing them? They get riled up and in turn my husband and I inevitably get pulled in and we yell too. Much of this goes on in front our children and it’s obviously upsetting to them. They have asked us to stop on many occasions. Your advice?

You raise an issue about political discourse that is playing out in households, dorm rooms, offices, and on park benches all over the country. A common theme in the media is that this is “an election like no other,” (1) (2) (3). Or, as AFP News Agency Editor Daniel Woolls describes it, “a slug-fest like no other”(4). Yes, something unprecedented and important is happening on the political landscape, and with it comes passion, and lots of it. By your own admission, and against your better judgment, you and your husband find yourselves pulled in.

I suggest three alternatives for dealing with your parents’ insistence on talking about politics. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Give these discussions free rein.
Let your parents say what they feel they need to say, whenever they choose. Your children are used to their opinions and behaviors, and they probably view their grandparents’ declamations as just more of the same – maybe more loudly, and maybe more frequently, but nothing new is going on. The grandparents are just being the grandparents.

An advantage of this approach is that your kids can experience first hand the expression of deeply- and passionately-held beliefs and positions expressed by people they know and love. Also, your kids can learn from watching how the four of you handle situations where there are differing points of view: Hopefully, when the heated discussions are over, love and civility prevail.

However, there are several disadvantages to letting these discussions go wherever they go, including:

  • Sometimes raw and unfiltered emotion overtakes civil discourse and things get said that can cause permanent resentment and hard feelings.
  • Your grandchildren may be confused when they hear from their grandparents points of view that directly contradict the values you’ve been teaching them.
  • Kids want peace and harmony between their parents and grandparents, and even though you say, “Oh, we’re just having disagreements – no big deal,” it can be a huge deal to many kids. It can leave them feeling stressed and conflicted.

Of course, you always have the option of re-visiting these discussions with your kids after the grandparents leave to clarify where you agree and disagree with comments made. Still, a serious downside is that your kids come to dread, and eventually resist, getting together with their grandparents as they anticipate those discussions. You yourself have expressed a dread.

Give these discussions some structure.
There are a variety of ways to give these political discussions some structure, that is, to put some boundaries on them.

  • Put time limits on them. Example: Set a timer for a set amount of time during which people can say whatever they want to say.
  • Set parameters for the discussion:
    • In a round-robin manner, everyone gets to voice his/her opinion on a specific topic (with a time limit).
    • Discuss pros and cons (two Web sites that are helpful in setting out the pros and cons on a given issue are ProCon.org and Debate.org.)
  • Shut down the discussions when they reach an unacceptable pitch and tone. “Okay everyone, it’s time to talk about something else.”

There are many advantages to putting some structure around these discussions:

  • Everyone is assured of having the floor, uninterrupted, to express his/her viewpoints.
  • The chances of creating an environment in which one person speaks and everyone else listens are increased.
  • The chances of the discussion evolving into an emotional free for all are reduced.
  • Those uncomfortable with political discussions may be motivated to tolerate them knowing the conditions for the discussion and how long it will last – perhaps thinking, “Okay, it’s for only 10 minutes. I can get through this.”
  • Your grandchildren can observe adults disagreeing in respectful ways without participants becoming loud and overbearing.

Of course there are these disadvantages:

  • Someone has to be willing to assume the role of facilitator in making sure fairness prevails.
  • Some may feel they are being shut off when they have a lot to say – and some folks will always have a lot to say, no matter what!
  • Some may resent being asked or expected to conform to some structure, as in, “Who made you king?”

Declare these discussions off-limits.
It is okay in some situations and under certain conditions to say, “We’re not having political discussions at our dinner table,” or, in a social situation to say, “My experience is that this is such an emotional topic that I’d rather not get into any discussions about it.” It does not make one un-American or unpatriotic to opt out. The truth of the matter is that even though the hoped-for outcome in these discussions is to “win” others over to your point of view or make them see why their opinions are misguided, that isn’t what usually happens.

In fact, the opposite usually happens: When their political views are challenged, people dig in even deeper in believing that their positions are the correct (and even righteous) ones. Often they conclude that the someone with a different point of view is some combination of irrational, hopeless, uninformed, elitist, naïve, bigoted, racist, sexist, and the list goes on and on.

Particularly frustrating for many is participating in political discussions when someone supports politicians who are putting forth agendas that seem not to be in their best interests. Journalist Alex MacGillis sheds some light on this seemingly puzzling phenomenon.

When all is said and done, it is important to recognize that facts, figures, and data – even when they are irrefutable – typically do not change people’s minds when it comes to their support for a candidate. These types of decisions are guided primarily by emotionality, and by not a need for objectivity.

So, know that you always have the option to simply excuse yourself and your children when the political discussions begin. Let it be known that you do not care to participate. Do not be intimidated into discussions that you know are going to cause you and your family stress and discomfort.

You can have your own discussions with your children, on your own terms, on what’s going on for you with politics: you can calmly explain where and why you stand on the issues, and have a productive dialogue with your children.

I hope you find my three options helpful as you make decisions to ensure that your parents’, or anyone else’s political views and agenda, do not determine the course and content of political discussions in your family.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Dr. Gramma Karen’s most recent book is
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen:
 Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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