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Keeping political discourse civil during the main course

At holidays: Making points without jabs

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Raymond Parker and his wife, Tiffanie, look at family photos Wednesday and their home in Cortland. Raymond is conservative while Tiffanie is liberal. Their marriage has survived 28 years, seven presidential elections, five New York governors and two teenagers.

Raymond and Tiffanie Parker are no strangers to tense political moments in their households during get-togethers.

“Which holiday and what year?” Ray Parker said.

Ray Parker, who grew up in a conservative family in Cortland and joined the military at 19, is conservative, while Tiffanie Parker, the daughter of a minister who always opened his home to different people, is liberal.

Their marriage has survived 28 years, seven presidential elections, five New York governors and two teenagers.

The teens are now in their 20s — Mya is 23 and Alec is 27 — and they have their own opinions, too. Mya is a liberal fervent about Black Lives Matter, the environment and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Alec is a moderate who likes to rile his sister.

The last time the whole family sat down at the dinner table, Ray Parker said, Alec refused to refer to Mya’s transgender friend by the preferred pronoun, angering Mya. The conversation ended when their mother, the peacemaker, intervened.

The siblings get along, however, they will argue one minute and hug the next, and they call each other frequently and have their own relationship.

It’s happening to most Americans

A recent study from the American Psychological Association found politics are a common cause of stress for Americans, with about two-thirds of the respondents reporting in 2017 they were concerned about the future of America.

Adding to the stress are stark differences in opinions on issues and political parties. Psychologist Vaile Wright of the American Psychological Association, said it’s not uncommon for those differences to arise during the holiday get-togethers.

However, she suggests people shouldn’t avoid conversations that cause conflicts.

Be open to change

The ability to get along despite stark differences rides on several factors, the Parkers say:

• A willingness to grow.
• Respect for the other person.
• Listening to opposing viewpoints.
• Finding common ground.
• Knowing when to drop the subject.

Over the years, Ray Parker has grown more liberal. He used to be a staunch Republican and think any viewpoint beside his own was wrong, he said.

“I was in the military and a registered Republican and I thought that was the correct way to be, it was the way my elders were,” he said.

However, meeting his wife and then having children led Ray Parker to open himself up to other viewpoints. Even if he doesn’t agree with them, he
can now respect the other side.

It goes both ways.

Tiffanie Parker said she has found the best way to tackle difficult subjects with your family or partner is to keep your eye on the bigger picture.

“We all want certain things: good health insurance, homes, jobs, income, food for ourselves and families,” she said. “Politicians have different roads of getting where they want to be but the biggest things we all want — we can find common ground.”

Respect is important, she said, opening one’s mind to the other person’s viewpoint and life experience.

Every family dynamic is different, Wright said. “I think one of the things that’s important to think about is, there no hard and fast rules about this.”

Still, sometimes the answer is to just let it be, say the Parkers.

“Sometimes you just don’t need to talk about it,” Tiffanie Parker said. “You just have to give it a rest.”

Talk about family adventures

Rather than discussing politics over dinner, Paul Stein, a mental health counselor at Family Counseling Services in Cortland, suggests talking about what family members have been up to.

“There are more important things than differences in opinion,” Stein said. “Try focusing on interests and think, ‘What do we all enjoy.’“

Stein suggests thinking about dinner as playing a round of the Newlywed Game to see how much family members know about each other.

If the conversation does turn to politics, avoid going into it with hackles raised, Stein said.

Navigating the conversation

“If they do come up during the holidays, plan on how to interact with those people and ways to de-stress,” Stein said.

Wright and Stein advise approaching political topics in the same way.

“Whichever decision we make has potential rewards and consequences,” Wright said, both the stands to take and whether to discuss it at all.

Political discussions are important for two reasons, Wright said. They help dissolve division and if people don’t express their opinions they become complacent in supporting something they don’t believe in.

“If we’re telling ourselves, ‘These topics are too hard to talk about so why even talk about them,’ it only keeps the division going,” she said. “Also when we choose not to stand up for the things that we value, then we’re basically conceding that that’s fine.”

Wright also suggests focusing on policies like health care or immigration, rather than political parties or people.

“When we talk about policies or issues like health care, it can be complicated and it gives people more room to engage in dialogue,” Wright said. “When we focus on people, it’s like focusing on a team, like a football team. People are on one side or the other.”

Keep tensions from escalating

Put parameters on the conversation, Stein and Wright said. Families can agree not to discuss politics at the table, but allow for it at other times.

Constructive conversation works. Name-calling and bullying don’t.

“You don’t have to validate what the person said, but you should validate them for sharing,” Wright said.

Wright suggests saying something along the lines of, “I feel really hurt when you say so and so.”

Stein said it’s also good to know when to step away from a discussion, and maybe have a way for people to settle down, like a place to unwind.

“It’s important, I think, to reserve the right to end the conversation politely,” Stein said.

Outside help

Joelle Zimmerman, community outreach coordinator for Grace Christian Fellowship, said navigating family dynamics is a central topic of one of the ministries she and her husband run through the church-Mission Family.

The group is generally attended by parents of small children, said Zimmerman, but she says the guidelines are relevant for parents of older children as well.

The Zimmermans often ask participants to think about different scenarios.

“What, as they imagine their children leaving home, what characteristics do they want their children to have before leaving home,” she said, as one example.

That vision can be a guiding principle as the family navigates challenges, she said.

Another important question is to consider what parents have learned from their own experiences.

“What were the early influences growing up, some positive or negative experiences growing up in their nuclear family that they want to repeat and what would they like to avoid,” she said.

Setting boundaries remains important, Zimmerman said. People can focus on enjoying what they can from a relationship and skip the divisive subjects.

A child’s evolving views

Family dynamics change as children get older, Zimmerman said. “When you get to the point with adult children you have to use a lot more grace and patience and open-ended questions.”

Tiffanie and Ray Parker say it was hard to watch their children go off into the world and come back with different views.

“They start becoming themselves,” Tiffanie Parker said. “You raise them to be independent, autonomous and they take that leap and are exposed to all these other kids and professors and friends.”

You watch your children having their beliefs informed by people other than you, she said.

“She (Mya) no longer lives with us so we no longer have those regular conversations with her and talk about what’s going on in the world,” she said. “She’s doing that with different people.”

Ray Parker said he found this especially hard.

“I didn’t want to let go as a dad,” he said. “I wanted to say, ‘Do it my way, it worked for you for 18 years.’ “

Learning from others

Learning from the children helped improve the relationship, the Parkers said.

There’s not a lot of diversity in Cortland, said Ray Parker, so he wasn’t exposed to many different people as a child.

When he left home at 19 to join the military he started to expand his world view, but he says it’s his children he’s learned from the most.

“Life is so much better when you learn from the people that you come into contact with,” Tiffanie Parker said. “You become a more interesting person.”

And by learning from your children, they say, you are actually growing with them.

“Let them grow,” Ray Parker said. “Just let them grow.”

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