Whose Politics Is It Anyway?

Yesterday I was watching Rachel Maddow with Sally. Rachel had Elizabeth Warren on, and I turned to Sally and said “That’s Elizabeth Warren. We like her.” And then I froze. I know that I like Elizabeth Warren, but that doesn’t mean that Sally does or has to. What was I saying?

When I was a kid, my parents always said it like that. It was never about “this is the candidate mommy and daddy support”; instead it was always “this is the candidate we support.” As in, the whole family. In fact, the idea that family members might disagree on who to support was completely foreign. Campaign events were the same – we went out as a family, whether we liked it or not. We held signs for the candidates our family supported. We went door to door. We addressed mailings. Our participation and assent was assumed.

During the 2008 election cycle I visited the home of a good college friend of mine. His little sister was eight, and she asked me immediately who I supported, and then informed me – this was primary season – that she supported Hillary. Vocally. Adamantly. That little girl let everyone around her know that she supported Hillary because it was about time we had a woman president. I was completely shocked by this because – and this is the important part – my friend’s parents were both politically conservative. And yet, they let his little sister go around supporting Hillary with nary a word of reprimand. They didn’t take her aside and set her straight, telling her that no, in this home they supported McCain. And I couldn’t understand that.

I tried to imagine what it might have been like had I challenged my parents’ political views as a child, or supported a different candidate. I couldn’t. The closest any of us ever got to that was the few siblings who resented all the campaigning and became essentially apathetic. That didn’t generally go well. Participation was mandatory, and saying anything about campaign events being “boring” or wanting to get out of them was…frowned upon, to say the least. Dissent was not allowed.

I think part of the reason for this is that my parents were 100% sure that their political positions were correct – and not just correct, but God ordained. With this sense of infallibility, having their children share their political beliefs, like their religious beliefs, was of utmost importance.

Now fast forward to today. I am very passionate about my political views, but I’m not 100% sure they’re all “right.” And speaking of “right,” I’m no longer completely sure what that means. My political views flow from my understanding of the world and from my values. Someone else who views the world differently or holds different values would legitimately come to different political positions. I might disagree with those positions, but that doesn’t mean that that person holding them is somehow illegitimate. We’re all different, we all have different viewpoints, and we all have different values. And while I might try to convince someone else to share my specific values, on some level it’s okay that we, as human beings and as citizens, disagree.

As a parent, my goal is not to raise children who share my exact political beliefs. My goal, rather, is to raise children who are critical thinkers and compassionate human beings – and who are able to make their own decisions and form their own beliefs. In fact, I would rather have Sally grow up to disagree with my politics after thinking things through and choosing for herself than have Sally share my exact beliefs not because she thought them through but simply because they’re what I believe. And the same for Bobby, of course.

So while I will definitely invite Sally and Bobby to tag along and participate in political events, I won’t dictate their politics to them or tell them what they have to believe. Instead, I will answer questions about what I believe and why and let them make their own choices. More than that, letting Sally and Bobby know that Sean and I don’t always agree on every political issue will be healthy for them, teaching them that it’s okay to disagree (I never saw my parents disagree on politics, ever). I don’t want to raise carbon copies of myself. I want to raise individuals with their own minds, thoughts, and dreams.

Next time Rachel Maddow hosts Elizabeth Warren, I’ll tell Sally “That’s Elizabeth Warren, and I like her a lot.”

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Caravelle

    Heh. Of course even saying you like a political figure influences your children’s beliefs, you can’t really get around it, but I can see how there would be a massive difference between that unavoidable influence and actually not allowing dissent at all.

    It’s funny how much saying things like “We like her” shocks me. It’s not like my parents were ever shy about imparting their political beliefs on me – I remember seeing George H. Bush on the cover of Time or Newsweek and asking my father who that was, and he answered “A horrible man” (my response : “Then why is he smiling ?” Ah, childhood). No “I think”s or “Some would say”s or buts or maybes about it.
    But “we believe” still strikes me as creepier for some reason, and I guess it’s for the reason you say : it explicitly says that nobody in the family has their own beliefs, and that the children in particular don’t have their own tastes, they have the tasted their parents picked for them.

  • Karen

    You GO, grrl!
    I suspect it’s natural for parents to say, “our household supports X”. I remember how guilty I felt voting against my parents’ wishes in my first election. (I did it anyway.) But you’re absolutely right; you can only inform your children of your political preferences. They will find their own as they grow up.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I do remember very distinctly the conversation I had with my mom in 1992, the year I turned six, when Bush was up for re-election. I knew that Bush was the president but I didn’t really understand what a president was or an election and my mom explained those things to me. When I asked her if she was going to vote for Bush she said “No, I don’t agree with Bush. I’m going to vote for Bill Clinton.” Now that I’m an adult, I know how important those I-terms are.

      Of course, there was no way for her to give a biased explanation of WHY she was doing this and I don’t think that’s avoidable. I don’t even really think it’s necessary. It’s okay to want to impart your values to your children (and I have to say, I’d be pretty upset if one of my future children ends up a Republican.) but I think the point you made is key: it’s important to make clear that these are individual choices and that your kid is obligated to join the family group-think. I think about these things a lot these days because I’d like to have kids and I don’t know quite how to handle being a highly political person with children. No doubt, since you already have children, you think about them even more!

      • kisekileia

        I worry about this too. I have to admit, if a child of mine ended up with similar beliefs to today’s Republicans, or many other conservatives and libertarians, I’d feel that I’d failed in some way. There are some conservative and libertarian ideas (not nearly all of them) that I just don’t believe are compatible with basic compassion unless they’re accompanied by some serious ignorance about what effects certain policies would have, and I want my future kids to grow up to be compassionate and well-informed. I hope that doesn’t make me an anti-conservative bigot.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I don’t think terms like “bigotry” apply to a person’s political views or to opinions in general. Opinions are choices and it’s perfectly acceptable to be strongly opposed to certain choices. I AM anti-conservative and I don’t apologize for it and I think progressives need to stop apologizing all the time for the sake of demonstrating how totes open-minded we are. We’re totally falling for the conservative “Waaaaaah! You’re intolerant of my intolerance!” line when we do that. I am anti-thinking that women are inferior, anti-thinking that gay people don’t deserve rights, anti-thinking poor people deserve to be miserable, anti-a lot of things that I find to be morally reprehensible. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and remember that good people can believe bad things, but I’m not going to mealy-mouth about the fact that I think those bad things are bad things. And that doesn’t make me a bigot.

  • Niemand

    It’s odd how much children can pick up of their parents’ views, even when the parents don’t tell the child who to support or what to believe about politics. I remember being a fairly small child (5-6? maybe 7?) and being chided by my mother for saying I “hated” Ford, because really I should only dislike him, having not had a direct or indirect interaction with him that would lead to hate and that one shouldn’t let one’s politics lead to hatred. Good advice that I don’t always follow.

    Anyway, what I don’t remember is why I disliked Ford or how I knew that my parents didn’t favor him (they didn’t.) I don’t remember them talking politics to me-at least not at that age, they didn’t campaign for Carter, they didn’t rant about politics at the dinner table…yet I knew who they would vote for and, more or less, why. So don’t feel too worried about Sally’s picking up on your views. She’ll work her way around to forming her own in time if you don’t actively stop her from doing so.

    • machintelligence

      My thoughts exactly, but you expressed them better.

  • Stony

    I consider myself extremely lucky in this regard. As a child, I would accompany my parents to the polls for every election. Upon exiting the voting booth, my dad, or my mom, would say, “Did you cancel my vote?” And the other would say, “Yep, did you cancel mine?” “Yes.” And we’d go home. It happened the same way over and over and over. They never did think alike politically. So by extension, I was allowed to make up my own mind.

    Now I find myself simultaneously trying to impart a sense of citizenship and social responsibility onto my son while trying to keep him away from my Fox-News-Limbaugh-Beck in-laws.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      trying to impart a sense of citizenship and social responsibility

      This. This is what I see as important too.

  • Uly

    If you really want to avoid influencing your kids, you might try, instead of saying “I support this person” or “I’m voting for that person” simply saying “This person believes x, y, and z” as neutrally as you can. If they ask specifically you could tell your opinion on issues x, y, or z, or person A, but you wouldn’t be even implying what to think.

    That’s also a useful approach to ads of all sorts. “When they show that picture of the happy people with the bottle of beer, they’re trying to say that drinking their brand will make you happy and you can do it with all your friends. They want you to think that their brand makes you have friends, because they’re trying to sell it.” Or “When Candidate B says “family values”, he means he doesn’t like the idea of two men or two women getting married, and he thinks mothers should stay home with their children instead of working.” Politics especially is full of all those buzzwords that just turn off thinking entirely. Best to translate them in a clear and neutral manner. Most children can then draw their own conclusions based on the values they’re starting to develop.

  • Christine

    My parents never made comments like that. I was left to figure out on my own if they liked certain politicians (answer: no). They would explain who someone was, and leave it at that. Now, most of my political awareness as a child was from watching Air Farce, a wonderful satire show that is unfortunately now off the airwaves entirely, so my parents actually had a lot of explaining to do. “Who’s that supposed to be? Why is he talking with only one side of his mouth? Why was that funny?”

    We recently had a by-election here, so I made sure to explain to the little one that I was voting, and it’s important to do. I told her why I was replacing the lawn signs that had fallen down, because it’s important that everyone get to speak, even if we disagree with them, that’s how democracy works. After I voted I told her “that’s it, wasn’t that easy?”. Of course, I neglected to explain what voting is. Not mentioning who I was voting for, or which of the lawn signs I was replacing I disagreed with, however, was deliberate.

    • kisekileia

      Another Canadian here, and I didn’t watch Air Farce but I remember who only talked with one side of his mouth. :) I’m not sure whether that’s something we really ought to be laughing at, but the comment made me smile.

      • Christine

        They never played it up for laughs, don’t worry. It was just a very easy way to recognise him.

      • kisekileia

        Oh, good. I’m glad to hear that. :)

      • Carolyn the Red

        They kind of had to do something recognizable – the guy who played Chretien was short and not very skinny. The difference in body types was amazing when they had the real guy on.

        (My family had shouted arguments around the 1980 and 1995 referendums, and a schism around continuing to support the conservatives in 1993. Then there’s my grandmother’s recent love for the NDP. I never got the idea that politics were inherited)

      • Carolyn the Red

        (Aside for the Canadians – my brother answered the question “Does anyone know who the prime minister of Canada is?” with an enthusiastic “Phoney Baloney” back when the PM rhymed with this. Yep, that was picked up at home, and my mother didn’t apologize when she got a call about it. So maybe there was a little indoctrination. Didn’t help that one of my brother’s playmates was the child of one of “Baloney’s” cabinet ministers)

  • smrnda

    There’s a huge danger when parents use the word “we” meaning the entire family. I think it goes beyond politics and religion. My parents were both highly educated and a bit snobbish on a lot of things, and despite their being permissive in lots of areas I got lots of “we don’t X” lectures when I did things that they thought didn’t project the image they wanted for their kids. It was irritating to hear that “we” since I wanted an independent existence and I felt like a lot of what I did wasn’t their business.

    The thing on politics with me is that I can respect some differences of opinion, some I can acknowledge, but I think some viewpoints are just incompatible with either reality or basic human dignity, and I’m not going to be ‘respectful’ of them any more than I would respect the ridiculous assertion that the world was created in six days and is only some thousands of years old. I don’t mind giving well thought out ideas a clear hearing, but some things really ought to be dismissed.

  • Jaimie

    Uh oh. I’m the goat here. When my daughter told me she had become a Republican I said, “Are you out of your mind!?”
    However, the entire subject of politics was dropped after a few “discussions”. It’s better that way. I don’t even think she votes so it’s all air anyhow.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      :-P I think there’s a difference between telling your kid you disagree with their politics and telling them they have to share your exact political positions. Sure, if Sally or Bobby become, say, libertarians, I’ll let them know I strongly disagree, but the important thing I think is remembering that they do get to pick their own positions, and don’t have to simply copy all of ours.

      • Jaimie

        Definitely. They also need help in figuring out the difference between rhetoric and exact party positions. For instance, my Republican daughter is more liberal than I am. So our discussions went along the lines of “they don’t believe in this or that, you know.” But she had listened to party rhetoric and wouldn’t believe me. You know, family values, liberals are the spawn of Satan, and the evils of socialism. She had no idea what socialism was, but it’s bad!
        It got pretty crazy and I wanted to weep in frustration. But that’s how they get many people.

    • Christine

      My sister was really worried about coming out as a Conservative to the family. We still strongly disapprove (and give her a hard time about a lot of the anti-democratic stuff that the PM does), but we’re all impressed with being involved with her local riding association.

  • Rebecca Newman

    My first election I voted Howard Phillips, he of the Constitutional Party, my family being too conservative to support the likes of the Republicans. It’s funny though how recently I’ve noticed a lot of the lingo from Republicans that the Constitutional Party was all about – scary!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Howard Phillips is Doug Phillips’ father. Doug Phillips, the founder of Vision Forum. And if you weren’t already aware of that, I bet I just blew your mind. Howard Phillips was actually fairly influential in getting the Christian Right started back in the 1970s.

      • Rebecca Newman

        I had no clue at the time, though I did discover this later and was that much more disgusted for having voted for the guy. At the time, however, it wouldn’t have mattered as our family was invested in the whole Vision Forum thing…

  • http://www.subparker.com Neal Edwards

    During the 2000 elections, my baby brother (about four years old at the time) asked me “I know we support Bush, but WHY do we support Bush?” I really couldn’t come up with an answer. I think I gave some kid-friendly version of abortion rhetoric. Something I regret to this day, even though I was only a kid myself.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yep, there’s the “we” language! When I was a kid, a teen, and a young adult, abortion was always the first issue I considered in any election. That’s how my parents did it, and that’s how I was taught to do it too. Support for “traditional marriage” was the second thing I considered.

    • ArachneS

      Funny. My 1st grade was one of the years my parents tried out putting us in the tight-knit catholic school in our parish, and it was the year of the older Bush election in 92 (that he lost). The day after election day all the kids in class were asking who everyone’s parents voted for and I believe my parents voted for Pat Buchanan(the more worthy conservative pick) but since Clinton won, it was “those people’s fault” Bush lost. When one of the girls asked me “Did your parents vote for Bush?” I answered with an emphatic “Yes”, even though I had no idea what the differences were between any of the candidates. Other than… it was bad that Clinton had won.

  • Jeremy

    The “we” rhetoric can expand beyond politics, too. When my sister was a toddler, my mom taught her not to disobey using a standard phrase: “We NEVER do [x].” “Ing-ne?” my sister would ask plaintively. “Ing-ne,” we would respond firmly.

    I guess this is the first time I’ve thought about how awful that was, but it was pretty awful. Having all your behavior, values, and ideas inscribed by what “we” do or think is a terrible way to grow up.

  • http://valuesfromscratch.blogspot.com Marian

    Even though my daughter is only (almost) two, I find myself catching myself on the “we” language a lot. I started saying it when she started hitting. I would hold her hands and say things like, “WE don’t hit” “WE don’t express our anger through hitting” “WE don’t hit to get what we want.” All of which is perfectly true. We, as a family, do not hit, not even spanking. But then it translated into other things. “We don’t touch daddy’s laptop.” “We don’t open the oven.” And of course, Mommy and Daddy are allowed to touch the laptop or open the oven, it’s only Olivia who isn’t allowed. I don’t want to be hypocritical or confuse her, so I catch myself all the time trying to stop saying we. I didn’t even think about applying it to beliefs, but it is even more important there. I don’t want to confuse her, be hypocritical, or make her feel like she can’t have her own opinions. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Oh man, I totally relate to this. I remember when my sisters and I started announcing “secret society alert!” whenever our parents made some kind of offhand negative remark about a political issue- because we knew that our parents believed certain things, but we didn’t exactly know which things, and why they believed them- but of course if we disagreed, we were wrong. We made a joke out of it and said we were in a “secret society.”

    Now that I’m older, I’ve found my parents are much more open to questioning and discussing this stuff than I’d realized before.

  • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

    I don’t have kids yet, so this is subject to change, but this is how I imagine I’d handle the situation with a young child:

    “That’s Barack Obama. I’m voting for him because he says couples like [insert same-sex couple's names] have the right to be married.”

    “That’s Ron Paul. [Family friend] is voting for him because he says he wants to stop the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

    “That’s Mitt Romney. [Relative] is voting for him because he says he wants to lower taxes.”

    And if the kid asks why none of us are voting for someone who’ll do all of these things, I’ll say, “Welcome to politics.” :P

    • Anat

      Will you also say ‘that’s candidate X, so and so is voting for hir because s/he believes people like your friend’s parents shouldn’t be allowed to marry’? That is, if a real person supports a candidate because of one of that candidate’s less pleasant ideas will you say that?

      • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

        Assuming we’re talking about young children (I’m going to say 6 and under), probably not. While marriage equality is a moral issue to me, I feel like saying something like that to a young child would be no different than conservative parents saying “Amethyst is voting for that candidate because she’s cool with murdering babies.” As my hypothetical kids get older we’ll discuss controversies like that in an age-appropriate way. But while they’re still very young and impressionable, I want to err on the side of not giving them the same “Our side is Good and the other side is Evil” mentality that I grew up with.

  • Danielle

    I actually didn’t grow up with much of the “we” thing, because my parents are opposites. My mom has always been a dem. She grew up in the Southern Baptist church before the fundie takeover and her family was very into liberal politics and support Jimmy Carter and all that. My dad is a conservative. The only time my parents took me to a political event was 1992, they happened to both be going for Perot that year. The highlight was that I ended up sitting next to Willie Nelson at the rally and got his autograph.

    I will definitely try to let my son make his own decisions when it comes to politics but I can see where it would be hard not to let your biases show through.

  • Ibis3

    It’s amazing how different your (including commenters here) upbringing was from mine. Our dinner table was a daily discussion forum about politics–not just partisan type stuff, but regional, social, environmental etc. There was never consensus. I was always progressive/socialist, (except on feminist issues which I thought my mother was far too extremist on–ah the naivety of youth), my step-father was the riding president of the Reform Party (think Republican North), and my mum was asked to run for the Liberals. It wouldn’t have been thinkable to have our politics dictated from on high. I’m sure if my stepfather had tried, my mother would have dumped him in a heartbeat (and probably vice versa).

    • Christine

      Call my a cynic, but I have to wonder how common stories like this will be going forward (my own new Conservative sister notwithstanding), as Canadian politics get more and more partisan and less civil.

      • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

        Canadian politics are still a bit civil? Please, can I move there from Australia?

      • Christine

        There was recently a story in our national news magazine about a government MP and opposition MP with a good relationship (one mentored the other, etc). Granted, this made the news, and people are always shocked by it, but it does exist.

    • Rosa

      That’s how my family is now. I wonder sometimes how my kid is going to tell the story of all the Occupy meetings he’s sat through in the last year.

    • http://thewordsonwhat.wordpress.com/ Rob F

      I’d like to wonder if having one’s parents disagree on politics helps you (generic) form your own political positions. If you see your parents disagree on politics, you therefore have no “default” political position. You therefore see that there is no a priori to pick one party over the other. You are therefore forced to think for yourself and form your own views.

      • Ibis3

        And to defend your positions. Which means you have to have some evidence and rationale that can stand up to arguments. I’m sure it helped me immensely.

  • Alexandra

    My parents just never talked politics to me. To this day, I don’t actually know anything about my parents’ politics. My mom always told me that voting is secret, and you don’t have to tell anyone how you voted, so she’d never tell me. I think she did it in an attempt to not impose her own views on me, but it really just frustrated me. It felt like she was assuming that I wasn’t intelligent enough to be able to form my own ideas and opinions, that I wasn’t capable of thinking independently of her if I knew what it was she believed.

    I’d much rather have heard, we support X, than her keeping her secrets.

  • http://www.weareallatheists.com Michel

    Hi Libby Anne, this conversation reminds me of an article I wrote a little while ago. I don’t write often but I do follow your blog a lot… :)


  • spidergal

    This reminds me of something I saw on a TV show a couple of weeks ago – It was either Rachel Maddow or Bill Marr, I really wish I could remember which. A shot of a kid, about 6 or so, with an anti-obama sticker on his back and when the reporter asks why the childs response “I don’t know”…Dad wasn’t impressed with that one! Now to remember which show it was!