My husband and I have a rule for ourselves: We don’t argue with old people.
This rule applies primarily to our parents and their friends, but also old people in general.
We also have a rule for our three kids, ages 14, 10, and 7: You will respect your elders. Whether you agree with them or not. Especially when you are a guest in someone else’s home. That’s just Etiquette 101 in our book.
This is why, despite my husband and children being African-American in addition to Jewish, we cannot go along with the challenge Michelle Obama posed to a graduating class in Kansas City last week, speaking on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, which desegregated American public schools.
Mrs. Obama urged, “And that’s really my challenge to all of you today as you go forth–when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices, because they’ve only been around folks like themselves–when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently…. Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about ‘those people,’ well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends.” (See the complete text on The White House website.)
When my oldest son heard about it, he cheered, “Hey, being rude to adults is now state-sanctioned!” (Yes, I noticed that he skipped right over the qualifier “politely.”)
We informed him that may be true in someone else’s house, and even at the White House. It would never be true in ours.
Here’s why. We believe we have no right to judge our parents, or anyone of their generation and comparable life experiences. Who are we–who didn’t live through Jim Crowe laws or Hitler, the Great Society or Stalin, who were still kids during the Entebbe raid or the Crown Heights riots–to tell people that (barely) lived thought it all how they should feel about it?
Our parents don’t hold their prejudices (and rest assured, being a minority doesn’t make anyone immune; we all have them, there’s no escaping it) because “they’ve only been around folks like themselves.” The exact opposite, actually. They hold their prejudices because they’ve lived around folks different from themselves the majority of their lives. And those folks made them suffer for it. So they’ve chosen to carry a grudge.
Who are we to “help” them see things differently?
How condescending would that be?
And if my husband and I, both in our 40s, don’t feel qualified–much less entitled–to set others straight, as it were, then from what vast wealth of life experience could some random teenagers possibly be? (Let’s just say that “All in the Family” is not must-see TV in our household. You want to disagree with your father-in-law, that’s one thing. You want to argue with him and upset your wife, hey, that’s your call. But, you want to argue with him while living under his roof to save money for your college education and eating his food and not paying rent–that’s not behavior we’re interested in our kids seeing. Or emulating.)
I think the key distinction is that “those people” whom the apocryphal grandpa and aunts are talking about may be our friends, they may be our kids’ friends, but they are not their grandparents’ friends. And their grandparents have damned good reasons for feeling that way. Just like we have our reasons for feeling the way that we do. Our experiences are not their experiences. So how could our conclusions be?
Our parents’ generation may not “know all the answers,” but how presumptuous to think that we do. (Doesn’t every generation believe they’ve finally gotten it right, while those backwards Neanderthals who raised them have no clue about how the real world works?)
So how do we handle situations where the opinions being espoused are not our opinions? We talk to our kids about them–later. We explain why we feel the way we feel, and why some people might feel differently. We attempt to pass our values down to our children–not up to our parents.
If, when they grow up and move into the world, any of my children choose to take up the banner of enlightening their peers about issues that are important to them, I will support them… up to a point. (All three of my kids know the day they come home quoting Marx and/or Engels in anything beyond an academic context, they can move out and find a nice commune to provide for each according to their needs. I’d say the same about the Ku Klux Klan, but somehow I suspect they’ll never be eligible for membership.)
But I will never support them in an arrogance of youth clash with those whose lives were more difficult and complicated than my 21st Century born and raised in America trio can begin to imagine. I will never lay credence to the notion that they know more and thus can better judge the actions of others due to their enlightened reading of history, than people who spent multiple decades struggling to survive in it. And have the battle scars to prove it.
But those are only our rules for our house and our family. Who knows, maybe those 18-year-olds in Kansas are qualified to tell other people what they should think. I just comprehend that I am not. And neither are my kids.