During the 1960s, I was blessed to be part of family gatherings around the large Victorian dinner table on my grandparents’ dairy farm, documented by one of my cousins with the latest, greatest Polaroid camera. At the time, I did not realize I was being schooled in deliberative democracy.

My grandfather, a college educated dairyman, read the Wall Street Journal every day. In his effort to be informed, he also read the Tulsa World and the Daily Oklahoman. There was never a lack of local, national, and world news to consider and discuss. As a teenager, I was just old enough to enter into these conversations. But, I also listened and learned, as wise and thoughtful adults reasoned through and discussed the complex issues of the day.

The guests at this table gathering included my uncle who had survived a WWII POW camp for two years. This same uncle had just lost one of his sons in Viet Nam—killed in his first week of action in 1967. Another son sat at the table with his Selective Service draft card in his billfold. One of my aunts lived at the farm while her husband served the country as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam. Three other aunts served the country in Washington D.C. during WWII. My dad had been a flight instructor in the Army Air Corps during WWII. One cousin had just entered the Naval Academy. There was no Selective Service draft card in my billfold but it would be there in two years.

Here is the news that captured the headlines and our conversations: the escalation of the Viet Nam War, the bombing of Cambodia, the resistance of some states to new civil rights legislation, students on campuses taking over administrative buildings, riots in Chicago, assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The list was long. You would think those at the table would be extremely careful to bring up only non-incendiary topics. But, virtually every topic that could come up had worldview significance.

As a teenaged participant, my greatest contribution was usually attentive listening and I began to follow their logic and understand their convincing arguments. The words were not loud, nor were they forceful. The more thoughtful and reasoned arguments carried the day. Men and women were equally engaged, heard and respected.

Though we were not elected officials, we did what citizens should do. We were demonstrating deliberative democracy on a family scale. Deliberative democracy is a process by which elected officials use reason and debate to shape public policies. (In contrast, participatory democracy says to disregard the legislators and go to the streets to get what you want.)

The words were not loud, nor were they forceful. The more thoughtful and reasoned arguments carried the day.

At the time, I could not have articulated what was developing within me. But, these treasured gatherings and conversations had significant impact on shaping my worldview and respect for truth and logic. Looking back, my grandparents’ commitment to creating space for the family was life-changing. Creating space not only for sharing a meal, but providing an environment for human interaction and the respectful sharing of thoughts and opinions.

As a grown man, I see now these adults had common fixed points of authority: a Creator God and His Word, an understanding and respect for our constitutional republic, and a commitment to civility. What does this mean for us today as parents and grandparents? Most importantly, this is not a time to shy away from conversation and civil discourse. This is not a time to avoid talking. Avoidance has consequences just as ill-handled conversations. However, as the parent, you control the environment in which your children can learn. They will one day be living among people who believe their cause is greater than any authority. The importance of your children observing rational adults discussing difficult concepts in an intelligent way cannot be overestimated.

The importance of your children observing rational adults discussing difficult concepts in an intelligent way cannot be overestimated.

So, what should we do? How can we ensure that the young people in our homes (who will grow up to be big people) learn how to treat others in any situation? Whether you have toddlers or teens, the following guidelines can help teach the concepts of reason, respect, courtesy, and civility. (Modify and adjust to meet the developmental needs of your children.)

  • Teach the meaning of presumption—how to recognize it and how to guard against it.
  • Discuss the meanings of reason, respect, courtesy, and civility. Give examples and non-examples.
  • Model how we should talk to someone with differing political or social views (or differing opinions at the Lego table!)
  • Role play common scenarios—conversations with someone at school or in other public settings.
  • Take time to discuss real conversations and their outcomes. What could have been said or done differently to show respect to the other person?
  • Encourage dialogue of ideas and philosophies in the home.
  • Practice listening skills. Whether your children are toddlers or teens, we should model and teach the art of listening to others.
  • Discuss ways we can find common ground with those of differing political and social views. (such as, helping the poor and serving the elderly)
  • Practice how to respectfully ask questions with a tone and inflection that speaks of respect for the other person.
  • Pray with your children for our leaders in schools, churches, and government.
  • Take your children to God’s Word to evaluate what they are hearing. Just because a smart person is saying something that they believe is true—it doesn’t mean it is. How does it match up to what we know to be true from Scripture?

“A world without God is a world without fear, without law, without order, without hope.” –Charles Spurgeon

Note: This post is a rewrite of two previous posts from 2017 and 2018, updated and revised. The content seemed even more applicable today.