Three Reasons Why We Talk Politics at the Dinner Table (and think you should too!)

It only been a little over two weeks since Donald Trump was elected President, and no matter which side of the political aisle you stand on, you are probably feeling pretty swept up in the crazy emotion of it all.  This is probably even truer if you’re standing on my side of the aisle.  As someone who tends to have a tough time watching my language in front of my children on a good day, I now find it nearly impossible when the subject of Trump and womefamily-tablen, Muslims, immigration, environmental policy, education…well Trump and pretty much anything…comes up. Between my own lingering cloud of anger and frustration, the endless stream of political tweets and Facebook posts, and constant media coverage, I mostly want to just dig a hole, crawl in and wait for it to be over.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone either.  At the very least, it’s tempting to want to avoid any discussion of politics and just enjoy a family meal together.  Yet, I feel it is more important than ever to engage and discuss the issues with our kids.  Here’s why…

Sharing our values

Conventional wisdom has always advised avoiding religion and politics at the dinner table.  We have also heard suggestions from a number of family and child experts that parents should refrain from discussing politics, and from expressing our deep upset, in front of our children.  However, I am not suggesting launching a political offensive against your ultra-Conservative uncle over Thanksgiving dinner.  Nor am I suggesting that we go on a political rant using our best expletives to describe our politicians and their directives.  I am talking about using family meal time to let our kids know that we—their parents, grandparents, and caregivers—are genuinely concerned about politics.  Why?  Because politics are a public, institutionalized expression of privately held values.  And, it is that set of values that I wish to communicate to our little ones.

I suspect you might think we are little crazy—after all, our children are only three and six years old.  But, even at these young ages, they can understand what we mean when we talk about the “bad behavior” of politicians that doesn’t reflect our sense of “what is right and wrong”.

I won’t lie—I was totally kvelling when my six-year-old announced at dinner this week that he thought even people who came here illegally, and were escaping tough situations in their home country, should be allowed to stay.  Yet, this is above and beyond what we seek to accomplish at the table.  I want my children to know what it means to disagree with people in charge, or to speak up and help protect those in our society who need it most.  And I’d like to think that the discussions of our ethics and values began long before President Trump took the oath of office.  (Lately, we’ve had quite a few discussions of what protest means, which is great.  I had to draw line at explaining what pussy hats represent though.  Too much, too soon.)  I want them to respect people who look different from them, come from different places and practice different religions.  Not just tolerate, but actually respect.

I also want them to be aware of the privileges that we enjoy, and know that other families are not so lucky.  No, when they are spitting out their vegetables into their napkins, they don’t really want to hear how lucky they are to have healthy food to eat.  But, yes, they do want to hear that their father and I will not tolerate the bullying of people we care about and respect.  They totally get it.

Raising Activists

In a Time Magazine article from September 15, 2016 titled, “Secrets of Successful Siblings”, author Charlotte Alter looks at nine families that raised multiple children who all went on to achieve extraordinary success.  One of the families documented is that of Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago.  The article describes how he and his siblings were raised in a politically charged atmosphere, where mom, Marsha, often didn’t come home for dinner because she had been arrested at another protest, and when she did, Rahm recalls, “Just eating dinner was a test of current events.”  Though this is a bit of an extreme example, Rahm and brother Zeke (who helped craft the Affordable Care Act with President Obama) both testify that their home life and the way they were raised, not only helped contribute to strong sense of political responsibility, but the sense that they could have a real impact on social change.

It’s not that I need my children to become politicians.  Truthfully, I’m not even sure if I would want them to.  Other well-known social activists report similar upbringings, but worked to create change in different ways.  Singer and activist, Pete Seeger, as well as grassroots labor activist, Delores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers Association, are two that come to mind.  What I want is for my children to feel a similar sense of social responsibility.  I want them to know that, if they choose, they can have an impact on our world.  And, damn it, I want them to care!

No doubt, this can go too far.  Several children of political activists, including Rebecca Walker, daughter of African-American novelist Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and white, Jewish lawyer activist, Mel Leventhal; Jonathan and Rachel Fast, children of communist activist Howard Fast (involved in trying to save the Rosenbergs); even Ghandi’s children, all reported feeling neglected by their activist parents who were too consumed with their causes to make time and space for nurturing their children, and their children’s interests.  Many of these individuals express that they felt coerced into adopting their parents’ political stances, oftentimes without their consent or agreement.

As with most things in life, I think moderation is key here.  I am not suggesting that we become so immersed in politics that we neglect our children for the sake of “the cause”.  Nor am I implying that they should become mini-politicians in the making.  However, exposing your children to social and political issues, creating opportunity for them to engage and form opinions, and letting them know that their opinions and actions matter, can help create a better, more successful future for them, and for us.

Building Jewish Identity

There is no question that my political values are influenced by my progressive Jewish identity.  My feelings on helping refugees are guided by the story of the patriarch Abraham welcoming the stranger. My stance on immigration comes from the stories of my Jewish ancestors denied entry to the U.S. during the Holocaust (and, no, Mr. Trump, one cannot discuss the Holocaust without considering what it means to American Jews).  My commitment to social change is influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If not now, when?”.  And, I believe that the commandment from the Torah, “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” is at the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Moreover, my insistence on equality for women in America is reflected in my belief that Jewish women not only deserve equal opportunity and stature to men, but also that they must bear equal responsibility.   In other words, I don’t just want my son and my daughter to fight for equality, but to understand that privilege comes with the obligation to fulfill the commandments.  And, I do believe that we are commanded to fight injustice in whatever form it comes.

How much of this do my children digest?  I don’t really know.  They definitely get bits and pieces.  Even when I think they aren’t listening, on some level they are absorbing it.  And, I think the more we discuss it, the more it will continue to sink in over time.  I naturally want them to develop into proud, committed Jewish adults, but even if they don’t, I hope that these teachings will continue to inspire them. I hope that their upbringing in our home not only influences the way that they see the world, but how they behave in the world.  I hope that it will inspire them to join the effort and help make our world a better place.  As for me, I hope they will see that I care, that I try to do my part, and that I try even harder to watch my language as I explain all this to them over the dinner table.


2 thoughts on “Three Reasons Why We Talk Politics at the Dinner Table (and think you should too!)

  1. I LOVE that you are linking family time, food and personal values. We know that they’re linked, and that family time and food create opportunities for kids to learn and to feel loved. And I know your kids feel that love — and the groundedness that is so important for all of us.


  2. I love this piece. It brings up so many thoughts and memories for me. For the moment, though, the pressing issue is the sneezy, sniffly, achy yuck that seems to be winning the battle for my brain. Later.


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