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Disagreeing with your parents politically: how to deal (and why you should try to)

Jul. 26, 2018
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Disagreeing with parents is not unique to this generation. Whether it’s varying music tastes, lack of understanding of current fashion trends, or slang that makes it seem like young people speak an entirely different language, our parents are used to thinking differently than us. After all, their parents thought differently than them…and so on, and so on. This repetitive cycle can be referred to as a generational culture gap, and it's pretty much unavoidable. However, this divide doesn’t always have to be a cause for quarrels. It’s up to our parents to teach us about staples from their childhood like The Rolling Stones, and the beloved John Hughes films of the 1980s (just a few of my favorites). The pieces we can take from generations older than us have the potential to not only help us understand things about a time in the world we did not get to experience, but also allow us to shape our own thoughts and mold our own creations. 

But what happens when our disagreements have higher stakes? It’s no secret that the 2016 presidential election caused more family disputes than just uncomfortable conversations at the dinner table. A friend of mine recently shared with me the protocol for her family’s last Thanksgiving dinner. She said, “We had a rule this year at Thanksgiving dinner that if anyone brought up politics they had to go in time-out. No joke, my uncle had to stand in the other room for five minutes.” As silly as it sounds, this way of dealing with things can be the only option for a family to spend time together without the gathering ending in emotional turmoil. This election was different. In November of 2016, we were forced to understand things we never did prior about the people we thought we knew best. 

This topic alone invites an insanely large amount of questions. Most critically, how do we maintain relationships with our loved ones? 

Let’s get one thing straight. I feel beyond lucky to be a small part of a generation filled with such passionate, informed, kind, people with a true desire to change this troubled world. Because of this, the curiosity inside of me sometimes takes control. Over the past few weeks, I shared meaningful conversations with some incredible young people about what it means to them to fundamentally disagree with their parents’ political beliefs, and how they deal with it.

The Issue: Sexual Health

Lisa* shares the struggles she faced growing up in a religious household, and the confusion that is caused by loving and appreciating the people who raised her while holding vastly different views. She said, “My parents are by no means bad people, and their beliefs do not make them so. However, their beliefs do differ from those of my siblings and mine, which is curious because people are supposed to be a product of their environments.” She continued, “Something that my mother and I struggled with and still do struggle with is everything related to sexual health. In her specific terms, waiting until marriage is the only acceptable sex. Growing up, this meant that I had to take my sexual health completely into my own hands, as the topic of sex and everything related to it remained taboo. This was difficult because I wanted to be honest and open with my family, but with certain topics off limits this created a divide that, to be completely candid, we have still not gotten over.” 

The idea of nature vs. nurture seems to come in to play a lot in her mind. She has developed a thorough understanding of why she disagrees with her family. “Through a college education (a very liberal college education, in my case) I formed and determined a core set of political and personal beliefs that I felt confident and educated about enough to voice. I matured into an adult who could express [herself] in a healthy way.  And beyond that, I craved exploring contradictory beliefs. When I came home from college, I explored political themes and current events with my dad. These were the times when I was shocked to learn the real extent of our differences. He, a conservative who identifies as independent but holds very right-wing beliefs, and me, a liberal keen on political activism.” Like many others, she often can’t help but feel a sense of embarrassment when it comes to her parents’ traditional way of thinking. “I am human, and I do have moments when I feel embarrassed or ashamed to be associated [with] people with such seemingly extreme views compared to those of the parents of my friends, and many adults in my community. I don’t really talk about our differences publicly very much, but I always keep their opinions in the back of my mind as I mull over life. Part of my beliefs is being respectful of those who think differently than I do, and doing my best to understand seemingly absurd positions.” 

What inspired me most about my conversation with Lisa was the way she formed a sort of call to action at the end. Rather than trying to change someone’s mind, fighting, or becoming hurt, she remains focused on positive efforts to alter the world for future generations. “I firmly believe that actions speak louder than words, so I do my best to have my actions speak as loudly as they can to help make the world a better place, no matter who will judge. I was raised to be an independent and strong woman, so I will continue to do what I can within my personal agency and defend what I believe is right.” 

The Issues: Immigration and Racism 

Sam* was candid with me about how it felt when she learned that her father voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. “Call me dramatic,” she said, “but I was heartbroken when I found out he voted for Trump. A little background on my family and me: my mom, her siblings, and her parents immigrated to this country in the ‘80s from the Philippines. My dad is Jewish Russian, and his mother immigrated to America after surviving the Holocaust.” She felt a sense of betrayal not only by her father, but by the way he raised her. His vote didn’t seem to line up with all that she felt he had taught her to be. She remarked, “It was incredibly hard for me to comprehend how my dad could vote for someone who was so openly hateful to immigrants, Jewish people, and women when he married an immigrant woman, is Jewish, and has a Jewish daughter. I felt a lot of emotions post-election, and I didn’t speak to my dad for a couple of weeks after I found out. I felt like he didn’t respect me or my mom, and it took me a while to forgive him. To be quite honest, I’m still not over it.” She said she can’t even count the amount of times she has had a conversation with her father that has resulted in much more than just a heated debate. “Every time I see a new story regarding police brutality specifically against African Americans, it both breaks my heart and makes my blood boil. We don’t talk about these events together anymore, but I used to bring them up [with] him. He never thinks the cop is at fault, he always thinks the black person did something wrong. Making up excuses like they resisted, or the cop felt threatened for his life. It’s so frustrating, because he doesn’t recognize his white privilege and he doesn’t believe there is a racism issue in America. At the end of the day our relationship will never be as solid as it was when I was ignorant to his political beliefs.” 

When it comes to advice on how to communicate with a family member possessing vastly different opinions, she said, “It’s going to be hard, especially in a political climate like the one we are experiencing today, but if you can both present your side and hear one another out, then there’s a chance you can start to see eye to eye on things. I can’t say that’s where I’m at with my dad, but I hope to be someday.” 

The Issue: Guns

Kate* starts by praising the way that her parents raised her, encouraging her to form her own beliefs and remain respectful of others’ views (most of the time). She goes on to describe the ways in which the 2016 presidential election affected her relationship with her father. “This election confirmed for me that my dad has the perspective of a wealthy white man. It didn’t change my opinion of him, because I love him regardless. But he wasn’t very willing to hear my (and I quote) ‘libtard’ perspective on the matter.” It hurts when our parents, from whom we often crave approval, intentionally belittle us and our values. When it comes to guns, she and her dad completely disagree. He believes that the Second Amendment should indefinitely protect common citizens’ rights to any kind of gun, while she doesn’t think we should have access to high-caliber weapons such as assault rifles. “My dad truly believes part of the reason our country hasn't become a dictatorship is because the people have access to artillery and could take down the government if needed. I have my doubts.” 

I asked, “If you could tell your father one thing without him getting defensive or offended, what would it be?” 

She replied, “I would emphasize how the system was built by and for wealthy white men. You don’t need semi-automatic weapons at home to protect you from the government.” She recognizes her own privilege as she discusses her personal way of dealing with political conflict within her family. “There's a time and a place, and you just have to decide what's more important to [you] right now, [your] relationship with this person, or getting [your] point across. Sometimes it can be the latter, but that's a decision that has to be made.” 

The Issue: The #MeToo Movement

Alicia* expressed to me the ways in which she is affected by her parents’ lack of understanding when it comes to advocating and believing victims of sexual assault. She said, “While my parents are not extreme victim blamers or anything like that, they have consistently come to the defense of certain men during the #MeToo movement. It is extremely hard for me to hear my dad say things like ‘Oh, he must have just had a bad night’ in regards to one assaulter. Or for my mom to make comments about how she doesn't believe it is right for women to come out years later about assault they may have suffered.” Alicia recalls a specific ‘parental failure moment’ when her father told her that although sexual harassment in the workplace was something he hoped she would never have to face, it was virtually unavoidable. She shared with me her deep, experiential connections to the #MeToo movement, and why she holds it especially close to her heart. “I think my reaction is so visceral because I have been sexually assaulted. I have never told my parents, and I don't know if telling them would make them wake up in a sense or if I would feel even more invalidated. For the latter reason, I have chosen to not discuss my own experiences with them.” While she admits that it’s not an excuse, she can’t help but refer to the generational gap when it comes to their different ideologies regarding this issue. “What I try to do is remember that they love me and I love them, and at the end of the day we want what is best for each other. We do not agree on everything, and that is okay. It is about finding common ground and working from there. It is also about having civil and productive conversations, which I am currently struggling with. If you come from a place of love, I believe… education and healing can grow from there.” 

The most empowering part of being a young adult in today’s world is the opportunity to think for ourselves. While it can seem out of the question to reach common ground with loved ones, it isn’t. Of course, I am not encouraging maintaining relationships with toxic or abusive family members. Though it can be impossible to reach an agreement politically, common ground doesn’t always stem from agreeing on the issues at hand. Your common ground could be that obsession with classic rock, that love of John Hughes films, or even just a mutual respect for one another. If any generation can mix up the perfect concoction of conscious thought, passion, and love to turn this world into a better place, it’s definitely us. 

*Names have been changed for anonymity.