Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Trouble With Explaining Things

A while back, someone I knew during childhood posted that her young son had heard something about abortion on the radio and she had explained it to him.  She made a point of stating that it was funny that her 6-year-old could understand how bad abortion is when so many adults can’t seem to.  I wasn’t there so I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing her explanation was along the lines of equating all abortion to killing babies with no discussion of the differing views on when life begins or why there are caring, loving people who may see the issue differently.  Abortion, like many other divisive topics, can be explained in a variety of ways.  I often struggle with how to explain these topics to my kids. 

How things are explained to us and how we hear them discussed in our environment as we’re growing up form the foundation for how we think and what we believe.  As parents, we want to teach our kids to know the difference between right and wrong and how to make good choices and all the basics that will help them turn out to be good people.  Many of us also attempt to impart our religious and political beliefs to our children as part of teaching them what is right.  These last two things are what have concerned me recently.  There is nothing wrong with teaching these views to our children; my concern is more about how we do this and how differences are explained.  

The family I was raised in was very conservative and vocal about sticking with conservative, “biblical” values.  I knew from a young age that Republicans were the “good guys” because they care about things like saving babies and keeping God in America.  I vividly remember overhearing a conversation between my parents when I was about twelve years old, in which my dad revealed to my mother that, although he had been voting Republican for years, he was still a registered Democrat.  He’d simply never gotten around to changing his registration.  I remember getting this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, wanting to say something and yet knowing I couldn’t since I really wasn’t supposed to be listening.  MY DAD?  A Democrat???  How was this possible???  Why on earth would he want to be associated with the very people who killed babies and wanted to take God’s name off our money?  I obviously don’t have to tell you how all these things had been explained to me… either directly to me by my mother or by absorbing it from the Christian publications in our home, hearing people speak about them at church, or overhearing the conversations of concerned adults.

If you know me at all or if you’ve read many of my previous posts, you know that my beliefs have changed quite a bit since I was twelve.  I wouldn’t say that my views are the total opposite of how I was raised, but I am certainly the minority in my family now and I am not teaching all the same things to my kids that I was taught.  So here is what keeps tugging at my heart: Twelve-year-old me would have been horrified by present-day me.  Twelve-year-old me would have thought that someone like present-day me had taken too many steps down the slippery slope and plunged into darkness.  Thinking about this, I realized that when we are teaching kids to hate, fear, disrespect, or disparage the politicians and political parties and points of view we disagree with, we aren’t just teaching them these things in big, nebulous ways.  When we do this, we are teaching our kids to view their neighbor or their teacher or their grandmother or their aunt (or even their future-selves) as a villain, as someone who should be hated or feared or disrespected or disparaged.  It was the aunt thing, especially, that hit home with me this week.

My sister has an almost-three-year-old son and three tiny one-month-old babies.  I love these four kids as much as I love my own kids.  My sister and I had a brief conversation yesterday about something my mom mentioned to her about something I’d said about a certain political viewpoint and was concerned about.  Knowing that my sister and her husband agree with my mom on the matter, I got to thinking later about how much I love my family and how much I love my sister and brother-in-law and how much I love their kids, regardless of any disagreements on certain issues. 

Then I got to thinking that it's possible that the way things are explained to them as they grow could influence my nephews' and niece's opinion of me.  How would I feel if the triplets didn't think of me as the aunt who cried when she held them for the first time and drove to their house in the middle of the night once a week when they were tiny to feed them and cuddle them so their mom could get some sleep?  And it devastates me to think that their big brother could one day not care that I was the aunt who would pick him up and spin around until we both got dizzy and fell on the carpet laughing or the aunt who would sneak him fruit snacks and let him drink chocolate milk straight – not mixed with white milk (at least at my house).  It absolutely breaks my heart to know that although I would give my life for any of them in a second, they may one day think of me as a political enemy, someone to look at with scorn and disdain.  Not because I'd done something terrible, but because they realize that I think about things differently from they way they were taught was "right."  Tears are streaming down my face as writing this, just thinking that it is a possibility.

I am not in any way whatsoever insinuating that my sister and brother-in-law would ever tell their kids to think of me in such a hurtful way, because they would not do that.  I am not saying they would ever even tell their kids to think badly about anyone.  But what I am saying is that this is where what we say about others in generalities goes from a seemingly justified political or spiritual rant to becoming a real, face-to-face, heart-to-heart hurt.

This made me wonder about what I'm teaching my kids with the way I talk about what I believe.  It breaks my heart to think that based on how I explain things to them, my boys might one day look at my sister and brother-in-law as anything other than the people who love them as much as their dad and I do.  I hate to think that anything I would say to my kids about a view my sister and brother-in-law happen to hold might make my boys think badly of them.  Their aunt and uncle are two of the most generous-of-spirit and big-of-heart people I have ever met in this world.  They have stayed in our home with the boys and spent countless hours manufacturing all sorts of fun projects and silly games for them and showered them with love and affection.  I honestly don't care if we disagree about certain issues and I would never want the way I talk about things to cause my kids to care either. 

But since I am raising my kids with a few different views from some my sister's family holds, how am I doing that?  Am I teaching them the same exact thought process I was raised with, but only with different villains?  Or am I teaching them love first and foremost, regardless of political or religious differences? 

Our political or religious beliefs are only part of who we are and as we are searching and questioning and trying to grow, they can change.  That doesn’t mean we become completely different people.  In some cases, like mine, I would say that the evolution of my religious and political beliefs was more a process of bringing them in line with the person I am.  It doesn’t mean I love my loved ones any less because they may not agree with me.

So here is what I think we should do:  The next time we are tempted to act as though what we think or believe is the absolute, 100%, no-questions-asked right thing to believe and that we know the exact right way assert it to "stick it" to dissenters.... before we start to type or say words that demonize or disparage anyone, we should think of the people we love most in this world.  I want us to think of how we SHOULD discuss the matter if those people we love were the ones on the other side.  We should think of all the things we love about them, all the wonderful things they add to our life, all the things that make them individuals instead of the labels we assign to people for their beliefs.  We should think of how we would feel or what it would mean to us if we were speaking those hateful words to those we love -- to their face.  We should think of how we would be destroying something precious by directing those words to them and teaching our kids and those around us to do the same.  If that doesn’t give you pause, well, it should. 

We need to stop.  We need to think.  We need to remember that those groups and parties and politicians and other-side-ers we so love to rant about are representatives of individuals.  They represent individuals we know and love.  We need to teach our kids and the people around us that there is another way, that who we are and how we treat each other is far, far more important than whether or not we agree on things that are decided in the voting booth or can only be believed rather than proven. 

That, my friends, is what I intend to explain to my kids.

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