Sometimes when I’m watching sports on television one of my daughters will plop down beside me and ask, “Who are you rootin’ for?” I tell them the “blue team” and return serve asking, “How bout’ you?” Without fail it’s, “I want the blue team too.”Recently, standing in our kitchen, I asked J, “Who are you voting for?” even though she’s a senate term too young to cast an official ballot. While seeing exactly how much ice cream she could pack into her bowl, she replied, “Barack Obama I think.”
That makes two of us.
Obama’s Iowa victory speech was the most moving and inspiring I’ve heard in a long, long time. Among other parts, I liked his “there are no red states, blue states, only the United States” idealism and his admonition that 9/11 shouldn’t be used to “scare up votes.” Instead he talked about terrorism as one of several important 21st century challenges including global warming, poverty, oil dependence, and nuclear proliferation.
I was less impressed with his simplistic criticism of outsourcing and economic globalization, which I assume was a nod towards Midwest manufacturers. Go ahead and join the drumbeat against outsourcing, but first convince the American consumer to pay quite a bit more for consumer goods. People want Wal-Mart prices and protectionist trade policies, but seem unwilling to connect the dots.
I wondered how can someone be so incredibly comfortable on the national stage when he hasn’t been on it all that long?
I’m admittedly conflicted about J’s voting intentions. On the one hand, I’m glad she didn’t say “I’m really upset that Tom Tancredo withdrew because like him I dream of living in a country surrounded by an insurmountable wall.” But on the other hand, I want her to become a self-confident, creative thinker willing to take positions different than my own. On one level it’s flattering that she wants the blue team and Barack Obama, but I’d rather she become an independent thinker rather than a carbon copy of me.
I want to guide her development while simultaneously remembering she’s an autonomous, unique person whose life will take unknown twists and turns.
It’s an interesting dance, hoping she adopts the values I’m attempting to model while simultaneously encouraging independent thinking.
It may be like promoting democracy in the Middle East and then saying “Oh shit, look who they voted into office.” In cultivating an independent thinker, how much control am I prepared to give up? What if she applies to USC, votes for a Tom Tancredo, and drives a Hummer?
Cultivating independent thinking is messier, takes more time, and is less efficient than more traditional and authoritarian models of parenting. Sometimes the dishwasher needs emptying, the lawn needs mowing, and bills need to be paid. To develop self-confident, independent young adults we have to guard against saying “because I said so” too often. We need to respect their ability to reason.
Also, children need to see the adults in their lives respectfully disagree and constructively resolve conflicts. And as children age, we need to draw them into more and more substantive conversations consisting of topics upon which reasonable people disagree.*
Ideally, teachers will help model these skills and sensibilities and provide our children with opportunities to practice and develop them. Unfortunately though, the educational pendulum has swung so far towards easy to test content (mostly of the math and science variety) that in-depth, critical classroom conversations are far and few between.
How do you test respect for contending viewpoints, tact and diplomacy, an appreciation for ambiguity, active listening skills, and the boldness and creativity of someone’s thinking? It’s tough to assess those skills and sensibilities, but it’s difficult to understate the importance of them in our homes, communities, and world.
* Postscript: I wrote this post a week ago. Last night, L and I attended a great dinner party. Without prompting, one couple explained how they do exactly what I’m proposing here. On the way home, L was deep in thought about their example, and said, “Our dinner conversations are more John Belushi Animal House than anything else.” At which point J and her both blamed me. I admit, there are times at dinner that I don’t act very professorial and my table manners could use some work. At the same time, they say they don’t laugh nearly as much when I’m not there, so there are trade-offs. My point in sharing this to admit to a gap between theory and current practice.