How to Engage with Younger Relatives Over the Holidays—on Politics and Everything Else

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2021
by AMAC Newsline

AMAC Exclusive – By The Gallic

The holidays are upon us and thus comes the influx of students from many age groups who will soon be clamoring around your table, wanting to explain to you just what they have learned, in such ways as to make you squirm uncomfortably as they explain the way they now look at life.  

What can one do with today’s youth?

Depending on their age, most students either cannot understand logic or are not ready for it.  A 6-year-old might be fully enthralled with the idea of a fat man in a red suit who comes down the non-existent chimney to drop off gifts with the labels still attached.  No amount of logic will dissuade the little crumb cruncher, and of course, it would be foolish and cruel to try. It is hard enough to get them quietly in bed on Christmas Eve as it is.  

The slightly older ones are similarly not looking for logic but want to have a good time. Snowball fights, sledding down the hills at breakneck speed, and displaying complete ignorance of the consequence of their actions are their modus operandi of choice. Perhaps you have seen a group of young men who have broken a window during the game they were playing.  They come in apologetically and announce, “We were playing ball and the window broke.”  Two unrelated events; the remarkable coincidence that a window would break while a game simultaneously goes on is beyond calculation.  Yet that is precisely what they will say.  (My grandmother, God bless her soul, always claimed that the girls would take ownership of the window breaking.  I will let the reader decide if she was correct.)

The oldest ones, the college students and beyond, may come fixing for a fight.  Not a knock-down-drag-out one, but many of them have just learned from their teachers how wrong their parents and grandparents are. Sound familiar?  What are we to do?

Here are a few ideas:

When speaking with them, at the dinner table, or in casual conversation, the first principle is to look for common ground.  The desire to set the youth straight is strong, especially if they are college students. To do so one ought to consider the world they live in.  When your high schoolers or returning college students complain about “systemic racism” or looming environmental disasters, ask them to first explain.  Then, as a general matter, I try to find points of agreement in response. Why? Agreeing, when possible, not vaguely but definitively, helps them see that the unspoken premise they are often taught by teachers – “adults are always wrong” – is itself erroneous.  Instead of allowing others to dictate that there must be dissension, prove them wrong by finding peace if you can.  

But what if you cannot? Sometimes the positions held are stark ones and do not leave much room for negotiation.  In such a moment, if used sparingly, parents and grandparents have a trump card which they can employ: the voice of authority.  These young relatives have been listening to you for a long time; take advantage of that.  Always try to state the other side’s position first and then demonstrate their mistake.  For instance, the position, “we are a racist country that has stolen the land from the natives” could be restated, “so you are saying, the Native American tribes we found here own this country? Are you going to give it back to them? How would you do that practically and what about the tribes they originally displaced?”

Here it is also important to remember that today’s young people are not the first – and will undoubtedly not be the last – generation of Americans to be coaxed into righteous indignation by their left-wing professors and progressive politicians over the supposed evils of the United States. Indeed, fixating on America’s historical blemishes in order to co-opt the empathy and good intentions of young people to consolidate political power is one of the favorite pastimes of the cultural left. What you can offer as an alternative is the idea, espoused by many of America’s greatest heroes, that the true defining characteristic of our country is the collective ability of the American people to face past injustices head-on, forever striving toward the promise of “a more perfect union” envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my experience, if you phrase your responses as questions, you leave the conversation open and the ongoing dialogue often has a way of bringing young minds back to the world of reason. But when you flat out state the truth, even if you are unassailably right, you will very often end the conversation for better or worse. 

Many, even most, young people hold positions that they will later discard. But the way their family made them feel when they discussed such positions will not be forgotten.  Families for centuries have found that the bond that unites us is not quite so unbreakable as one might assume.  It can indeed be broken, and once shattered, like Humpy Dumpty, getting back together is a tough business.   A minimum goal for these events might be simply to end with everyone happy, or at least on speaking terms.  Your time with your maturing children compared to their teachers is very short.  However, your impact can be great all the same.  There are no secret codes, magic words, and no iron-clad logic that will convince a child who is not willing to listen, but there is another way that might help.

A kind word properly said, a warm cup of hot chocolate offered to a cold hand, a warm cinnamon bun fresh out of the oven (surveys have shown young men find this the most romantic smell, even beating bacon!), a nativity scene in the dim lights of the evening, a warm fire crackling on a cold night, or fresh cookies might prove to be more impactful than a week-long argument and almost certainly prove more memorable.  The old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach came about largely because it is true.  I have watched the most unruly of youths be cowed into submission by the mere threat they would be excluded from some tasty morsel.  Use food to win over hearts and minds.  It seldom fails.

And above all, I promise if you make the experience of your holiday visit worthwhile and different they will stick.  I can still close my eyes and see my grandparent’s home in Danbury Connecticut and smell the turkey and sweet potatoes.  We were always greeted with smiles and good food, and the lessons I learned thereof sharing and caring, of listening and speaking, have never been forgotten.  When they died well into their 90’s, we all had memories aplenty and they were happy ones.

The Gallic is the pen name of an educator with over 30 years of experience, who spends his time helping schools get better at teaching their students and parents happier at sending them to those schools.