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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Politics, Post-Divorce: Which Hat Should Your Kids Wear?

You may have heard about the California woman who walked away from her 21-year marriage because her husband said he wanted to vote for Trump. According to Gayle McCormick, the relationship was already on the rocks, and politics was the very, very last straw. "When things are 51 percent good and 49 percent bad, you just stay," she says. "[But] I was just tired and older and I didn't want to argue and neither of us was going to change." I'm going to go out on a limb and say they don't have to worry about talking politics anymore.

College of Liberal Arts & Sciences - University of Iowa
In intact families of origin or creation, discussion of politics can run the range of nonexistent to polarizing. Who among us didn't dread the holiday get-togethers where there was the inevitably wide difference of opinion? Who didn't wonder which drunk family member was going to bring down the carefully crafted facade of congeniality just as soon as the dessert came out? (And don't lie -- who didn't have a side wager as to which drunk relative it would end up being?)

As more and more attention was being paid to the election this past year, one writer in particular looked at the effects of those political discussions on kids.

In September, Cathy Areu, writer for TODAY looked at the relatively simple issue of how to engage kids in social issues without indoctrinating them into a political ideology. "So, I learned my lesson as a politically charged mom who wanted to raise Democrats: talking politics with kids is a good thing. It’s an important thing. But making them into mini-political-me’s is not a good thing." So...yes to engagement, no to brainwashing.

Let's add in a divorce.

Typically, divorced folks don't spend a lot of time worrying about the politics of their exes, but it can come up in a big way when there are other considerations, such as parents pulling their kids into political camps (as Cathy Areu was referring to) or disparaging the ex for politically-held beliefs.

What to do if you find yourself post-divorce and battling for your side of the aisle? 

Here are four suggestions.

1) If your kids are young, keep quiet or keep it simple. "I think this. But your other parent thinks that. Everyone gets to have an opinion." This can also be an ideal time to reiterate that people don't have to agree in order to work together or love their children.

2) If your older kids are already involved in discussions about social issues, remember to ask them what THEY think and challenge them on any beliefs that are just blatant regurgitations of your own. "I know you don't think people should be deported, but WHY do you think that?" Or, "What would be a good reason to let people from everywhere come live in our country?" You'll need to understand that some of what your kids tell you when you open it up like that might be because they heard it at the other house. And, that needs to be okay.

3) Teenagers might need a different tact. For this bunch, you'll want to both instigate the conversation and learn to sit back and listen. Teenagers and young adults are, by necessity and development, practicing what it's like to be "anything-but-my-parents". So, if you're a die-hard Republican, you'll need to shush up and try to understand why, based on their age and experiences, your kids think it's most definitely right to give all kids free lunch and free college. If you're a Democrat, you'll need to bite your lip while they talk about keeping America safe.

4) Discuss, don't argue. Be curious, but don't judge. Certainly DON'T say, "You only believe that because your FATHER/MOTHER believes it!" Also, don't force them to march, protest, jeer at the media, or make fun of people (that last one really just seems like common sense, though, doesn't it?).

Okay, it could be that your kids got MAGA hats for Christmas or that your ex is going to crochet everyone a pussy hat for Easter pictures. One key to remember (and remind yourself over and over again if you can't remember it after one try) is that your kids will change their ideas over time, regardless of which hat they have to wear when Grandma and Grandpa come visiting.

Another key is that this is a long-term growth and learning opportunity.

Mostly what you want for your kids is that they grow up to think critically and carefully about their values and beliefs, right? If so, then they need space to puzzle this stuff out for themselves, free from ultimatums about being red or blue or independent or green. Forcing them to be political mini-mees or judging them for being political mini-mees of your ex isn't going to give them that space.

Neither will parading around in your hat 24/7, so go ahead and do that on your off-weekends. :-)

Jenni McBride McNamara, LAMFT, is a therapist who specializes in post-divorce issues, Discernment Counseling, and decoupling. For more information about her Saint Paul practice, check out

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