Disagreeing With Dignity

by Sam Melden

[Kitchen Table Politics November 2016]

My daughter dropped her head as she walked back to the house. She just realized that one of the neighbor kids wasn’t rooting for the same Presidential candidate that she was. She told me the story. One of the kids repeated a line they heard from their parents and then my kid repeated a few things she has heard in our house. And of course in our neighborhood, where the signs in our yard stand in protest of the large parade of the other candidate’s signs, we knew she might run into this situation. Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Or when it comes to politics perhaps we could say, “kids repeat the darnedest things.”

When my oldest told me about what had happened with her friend, I had to reassure her. “First, honey, it’s okay - your friend can’t vote.” Now, that may have been more for the benefit of my wife who was listening in. It was funny. But then I started to reinforce what we believe about this time of year, and what we believe about politics and even more fundamentally, what we believe about disagreement. “It’s ok when we disagree with our friends. It just means we have a chance to learn or to grow. Or we have a chance to try to get better at listening than we are at talking,” I said.

By now, she wasn’t that interested, but I was reminded of something central to parenting: kids are going to repeat what they hear. This situation was partly about how to handle the infrequent bi-partisan playground discord and it was also about our kids repeating what they hear. Our children soak up all of these words and sighs and eye rolls and commercials and tense moments talking with Grandma about how she can’t believe its gotten this far. They see it, they hear it, they breathe it in. And then they repeat it to their friends while swinging. But, you know what else they hear? They hear the questions we ask in the tone we ask them. They know what it means when we respect each other and they are capable of repeating that tone and showing that respect back to their friends. So, how can we best prepare our children for these interactions? And how can we best prepare our children for all of the interactions they will have after the immediacy and heat of the election passes?

While it is important for adults to prepare for November 8th and to consider who they will vote for, I believe it is important for us to prepare our children for November 9th. The day after the election. When the results are in, a winner is declared and yard signs and bumper stickers transform from signs of hope to souvenirs. That is the day that we really want our kids to be prepared for, right? After all, they always need to be ready to treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The way we do that, is by behaving in such a way that the reality of November 9th is front and center in our family life. That is the day we are all reminded that we are all in this together. Despite the past year of separation and line-drawing, once the votes are tallied, we remember that we are all on the same team again. Isn’t that what we want for our children? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?  This grand experiment called democracy is predicated upon this hope and dream. We the people, we are all in this together.

So, as I look back at that conversation with my daughter I think I’ve learned a lot. And the next time around I trust that she will be more prepared and less disappointed to learn of her buddy’s parent’s differing viewpoint. And I trust that the next time around I will be more prepared. When can teach our kids we are all in this together, we all win, no matter who wins.

Including You Kids In The Conversation: Nourishing Bodies And Mind

by Sam Melden


I love my kitchen table. A few friends of mine made it out of wood used to repair the front porch of our old house. It’s one of those “trendy” farm-style table, but it was also quite cheap because it was repurposed from an intense building project. It seats around 8-10 people and will be in our house for a long, long time. Recently, my wife and I have been thinking about the role this table plays in our kid's lives.

We have three daughters and they eat and draw and read and write at that table. They also laugh and scream and argue and spill and smear food at that table. It holds a significant place in their life and whether they know it or not, it fills an important role in their development. How to clean up and how to have fun with your family.

And while they are learning manners and listening skills they are also learning how Mommy and Daddy interact with each other. Learning about conflict and resolution and sustenance and contentment and lack and want. It is the place our children are filled. We have some really great moments around this table. But what else could happen at this table? What else could our little ones be learning?

A few nights a week, after the kids go to bed, this table transforms into the space where my wife Lindsey and I discuss all different kinds of issues. Sometimes we’re talking about what homeschooling might look like in upcoming weeks. Sometimes we are talking about family and friends or what’s happening in the neighborhood or what bills we need to pay. Sometimes we are talking about current events and headlines and political candidates and campaigns. And while the subjects may change, around this table everything is in someway connected. Yet, we have found that sometimes there can be healthy, and not so healthy distance between the kitchen table experience our kids have and the kitchen table experience we have.

We want to merge the two. How can we talk about the issues that really matter to us with our kids? And especially in this election season, how can we talk to our girls about the political issues that matter to our family? How can we begin to merge those two conversations when appropriate and formative to our young children?

I think the best way to form some of the most central habits and perspectives in our children is to begin with those topics and issues that are most central to them. Want to talk about poverty? Talk about hunger at the dinner table and see what conversation emerges. Sure, it may be easy to talk to my three daughters about the possibility of the first woman president in US History, but what about crumbling infrastructure and pothole-ridden roads and tap water with microcystin? Go to the lake and ask them what color the water should be. Then start to explore how the water became that shade of neon green. The next time you are on a bike ride together ask them who should take care of the roads? All of these conversations, bit by bit, add up to something.

As we have started to try to explore these discussions, we found we need our children in this dialogue. They are the most creative, intuitive and imaginative people on the planet. Why not give them a shot at thinking about these things?

When we teach our kids, we force ourselves to become more informed. We gain perspective. By talking to our children we discover the issues that really matter. It is an active practice that forces us to be involved. It forces us to research and dig for answers to those questions your kids ask that leave you stumped.

“Kitchen table politics” is a common term in political circles referring to issues that immediately affect our lives. What is more immediate than our kids? What has a deeper effect than their well-being? What if kitchen table politics referred to the issues that mattered to you so much, that you had to talk to your children about it? What would that list look like for you? I encourage you to explore it