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Red, Blue, or In Between? How To Talk About Politics With Your Teen

“You can’t vote for him! You just can’t.”

At this point, my anger with my father had reached a breaking point. We simply could not agree on this particular election for U.S. Senate. In this election year, my passion for politics had grown exponentially, and yet I could not vote myself. But I had to realize the inevitable—we were not going to agree. And that’s perfectly fine.

In this discussion and many others, we are bound to different political opinions, even if we share the same household. Our generational divide can also cause disagreement, which is good and allows our democracy to thrive. When talking about politics, we must acknowledge that other opinions can also be right.

Teen Politics: Encourage Teens to Develop Political Opinions

From my personal experience, I’ve learned some rules that can help parents facilitate political conversations with their teenagers. As a teenager myself and lover of political discourse, I can attest that these rules helped me form my own opinions while understanding those of my family and friends.

1. Keep it nonpartisan.

You never know what party someone might affiliate with, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Ava Hilliard, a senior at Twinsburg High School in Ohio, noted that her family’s conversations on issues, not parties, have proved helpful for her. “This has helped me create my own opinions and my own stance rather than to simply agree with the person sitting next to me,” she said.

2. Focus on issues, not candidates.

While a conversation on candidates for elected office can be entertaining and interesting (and can take center stage if your teen is eligible to vote), discussions on issues are always more helpful and important. They can create common ground. A discussion on education, economics, or immigration can often be more enlightening than on a certain local, state, or national election.

3. Always ask about problems and solutions.

It can get disheartening to always discuss the issues with our political system. Remember to focus on policy that can get closer to solving our many problems. Don’t get too bogged down by negatives. In fact, encourage application of the problem-solving skills your teen most likely learned in school.

Make sure your teen has a background in government and civic education, and then have joint problem solving sessions where you can discuss potential policies to solve issues. While these discussions are the most difficult, they allow your teen to envision a better future.

4. Break out of digital political bubbles.

Due to the prominence of Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms as forums for conversation, generations can often clash. William White, a sophomore at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, said. “I don’t think older generations are necessarily more conservative or contradictory of younger—they just express their opinions through different platforms.”

Melissa Yasinow, a city councilwoman in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, says “I think that my generation and younger generations are both active in politics, but in different ways.” She believes that while younger people are more inclined to use digital platforms, adults portray their political opinions by voting more.

Nevertheless, utilize these platforms while encouraging a common ground—in-person discourse on issues. Misinterpretation and dramatization are just the “tip of the iceberg” of problems that can arise from these digital conversations. Always revert these discussions back to in-person facilitation.

5. Encourage empathy.

Our most important political value is our ability to empathize with another point of view–whether it comes from a different socioeconomic class, race, or other perspective. If you encourage your teen to place themselves in the shoes of someone with an opposing opinion or different status, they can grow as well-rounded political thinkers, even if diversity in your community is limited. Expose your teen to media with different political opinions and encourage them to join organizations with people of different identities. In fact, everyone, even parents, can benefit from this.

6. Don’t expect to agree on everything.

Just because you helped your teen develop as a person does not mean you will always agree. In fact, it’s healthy to disagree. And no, your teen isn’t always disagreeing just to be different from the status quo. Sometimes, their point of view can inform yours and vice versa, even as you stand on opposing sides.

As aforementioned, divides can be evident even within your own household. You and your teen are a part of some different communities, which can change your natural point of view. This isolation can become harmful. “I believe that Americans are dangerously isolated from other political viewpoints; everywhere from college campuses to my own Jewish community,” William Willoughby, a sophomore at University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, said. “I think the respective bubbles on each end of the aisle became even more reclusive after the recent presidential election.”

Sometimes, when your political disagreements seem irreconcilable, connect over another shared interest or activity. You never want these opinions to hurt your family dynamic.

7. Make sure they VOTE.

These political conversations should occur before your teen reaches voting age – volunteering and social media advocacy are just a few options for the 15-17 year-old. But once they reach the age to vote, make sure they register to vote, research candidates and issues, and get out to the polls. In the end, it’s up to the teen, but your encouragement can be important.

While young voters make up 31 percent of the overall electorate, but only 46 percent of millennials voted in the 2016 general election. If you encourage your teen to make smart, educated political choices, you can in fact make a difference and support our vibrant democracy.

Zachary Nosanchuk

Zachary Nosanchuk, a graduating senior at Shaker Heights High School, Shaker Heights, OH is heavily involved in community politics.  He will study political communications at the George Washington University in the fall of 2018.