Q: My high school-aged daughter and son have been assigned to watch C-SPAN and political shows about the presidential election. She supports Hillary Clinton. He's for Donald Trump. They end up screaming at each other. I've had to warn my son to stop using disrespectful, offensive language and my daughter to stop throwing things at the TV. This is crazy. Help!
A: I'll say this for their teachers: They aren't backing away from teaching this election as some have said they are. A Texas history teacher (who asked that her name not be used) wrote me to say, "I love teaching the presidential election, but this year I'm scaling back because the administration warned teachers to 'stay objective.' I work in a diverse school. I would not be able to let the divisive, anti-immigrant rhetoric go unchallenged. Instead of class discussions, I assign online games from iCivics.org because students can work through them thoughtfully and be held accountable for their views."
For decorum at your dinner table, two teachers who've taught three decades of elections offer this advice:
"Since the kids have gone all 'Lord of the Flies' on Mom, adopt the 'pass the conch' technique from the book," says Newton, Massachusetts, educator Marj Montgomery. "Choose any object. No one may speak without that object in hand. No one. If they haven't read 'Lord of the Flies,' do so with them. Enjoy the discussions it prompts."
Illinois educator Kevin Pobst suggests not allowing them "to watch programs together if they cannot conduct themselves with civility, period. Break the rule and the TV goes off. Then they suffer the consequence of not getting the assignment done."
Discuss what their goal is when they argue. "Do they want to persuade each other, or are they just expressing their preference to insult?" Pobst asks. "Vicious, yelled, personal arguing is not persuasive. It's mutual offensiveness. No one persuades by offending. You persuade by making a rational, fact-based case for your ideas, not an emotional rant."
Montgomery suggests using debate and mock trial techniques. After they make a case for their candidate, "have them switch sides," she says. "That turns down the volume. Daughter speaks for Trump, son for Hillary. Nothing comes out of either's mouth without checking the fact with an unbiased fact-check site. Mom can even sound an obnoxious noisemaker when any statement is found to be false." (See factcheck.org, politifact.com and the Fact Checker at washingtonpost.com.)
For a meaty discussion (and history lesson), "make a short list of successful presidents. Ask them to figure out what the job description really is," says Montgomery. "Discuss demonstrated skills and personality traits."
As for your son and daughter, Pobst says, "Their own relationship will, God willing, go on for another 60 to 70 years, while electoral preferences are time-bound. They shouldn't fall into a pattern of talking to each other in ways that will undermine their relationship -- or turn each other into cartoon characters."
While these election-driven arguments are clearly frustrating you as parent, Montgomery says, "Rejoice that your kids are involved in the political process -- noisy and uncomfortable as it is. It's way preferable to the teenage shrug, followed by the mantra, 'Whatever.'"
Find useful election resources at Harvard's justiceinschools.org, c-spanclassroom.org and newseumed.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)