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Q&A

Talking to Parents About Politics Can Be Tough, but Democracy Is at Stake

One of the most popular types of civic engagement for young people is discussing political and social issues with family and friends.

  • Gabriela Pérez
  • Tanya Martinez
Published: May 11, 2022
Illustration of people talking
©2022 Edel Rodriguez/theispot

Galvan­ized by issues like climate change and police viol­ence, young people have shown their engage­ment with our demo­cracy by protest­ing, volun­teer­ing, and voting in record numbers.

“It seems that between the ages of 18 and 30, increas­ing numbers of young people engage with polit­ics, are inter­ested in polit­ics, and share their polit­ical voice,” writes Bren­nan Center Fellow Elan C. Hope. “This is espe­cially true for Black and Latino young adults, who show the most growth in polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion and interest through­out young adult­hood.”

One of the most popu­lar types of civic engage­ment, Hope notes, happens within the family, through conver­sa­tions with parents and relat­ives that at times can be uncom­fort­able.

We asked Tanya Martinez, a 21-year-old junior at the Univer­sity of Chicago major­ing in public policy who is active with organ­iz­a­tions that serve immig­rants and encour­age voting, about the kind of polit­ical and social issues she brings up at home, the messages she wants to convey, and the reac­tions and surprises that come with shar­ing views openly even with loved ones.

What topics do you bring up for discus­sion with your parents, both immig­rants from Mexico?

A lot of time we talk about unions, and immig­ra­tion, and socioeco­nomic dispar­it­ies, and educa­tion. I have always been someone that has spoken about polit­ics. The first time I did it, I think I was eight years old. We had learned about climate change for the first time in school, and I ran home and spoke to my dad for an hour about how bad his pickup truck was for the envir­on­ment. “Your truck is terrible. We’re killing the planet.” I talked to him for what must have been an hour until I convinced him to bring in this bucket we had kept in our garage, which has served as a recyc­ling bin for the last 13, 14 years now. So, we star­ted to recycle after that. (The father sold his truck two years later.)

In high school, I was pretty polit­ic­ally involved. I’ve protested a lot of times — against the Trump admin­is­tra­tion separ­at­ing famil­ies, the summer of George Floy­d’s death.

How easy or diffi­cult is it to engage in these conver­sa­tions?

During the George Floyd protests, my mom star­ted to get angry at me. She was like, “This is danger­ous.”

But she came around. I tried to make it more relat­able. I tried to break it down to how similar it was to being an immig­rant and being targeted by a lot of author­it­ies and feel­ing like you weren’t protec­ted by the state even though you still pay taxes and work.

Headshot of Tanya Martinez Tanya Martinez

Where do you get your news and inform­a­tion?

I study public policy, so a lot of my sources come from class and end up being schol­arly journ­als, law reviews, news­pa­pers, or news articles — the Wash­ing­ton Post, the Atlantic, the New York Times.

My parents get most of their news from Univi­sion. They watch the five o’clock news every day. They also listen to radio stations going to work. It’s gener­ally the news, but the thing that’s prob­lem­atic is that my dad will some­times get a lot of news from his cowork­ers — and a lot of that is actu­ally incor­rect. My mom loves Face­book and will see a bunch of random articles shared by her friends or just what comes up on her wall. A lot of the time, those articles aren’t cred­ible.

People, and specific­ally poli­cy­makers and research­ers, always over­look and under­es­tim­ate how power­ful word of mouth is within the immig­rant community. Because liter­ally, that is the one resource that regard­less of your docu­ment­a­tion, you will always have. You’ll always have friends or family or someone, even if it’s someone abroad, who you get inform­a­tion from. What’s really import­ant to me is the fact that when I get through to my mom, I’m not just getting through to her. I’m getting through to a lot of her friends as well who she’ll talk to about it after­ward.

Any tips about how to get your message across effect­ively, without antag­on­iz­ing your audi­ence?

I’m the eldest of four, and grow­ing up, I made sure that my conver­sa­tions were not only with my parents but also with my sisters. Like, “Listen. This thing happens in the world, and this is why it’s bad.” It’s almost like a strategy, but it works. It helps in the sense that it makes adults more will­ing to listen to you when these chil­dren that they adore and protect are all kind of in agree­ment that what they’re saying or what they believe in isn’t neces­sar­ily right. 

And you should­n’t be demean­ing when you’re speak­ing to adults, because while it is true that a lot of the time young people feel like they’re dismissed, like we’re not taken seri­ously or whatever, I honestly think that my parents are scared of the oppos­ite occur­ring. My mom, who was a house­wife for most of my life but recently star­ted work at a school cafet­eria, stopped going to school in the third grade, my dad (a worker at a car parts ware­house) after fifth grade. They have element­ary educa­tion, and I’m an under­gradu­ate student at UChicago, which means that there’s an imbal­ance in know­ledge, at least academic and schol­arly know­ledge, that I think almost makes them feel a little alien­ated. So, whenever I do try to approach them, I try to begin with “listen, it’s not that I’m trying to write off your opin­ions or perspect­ives. I think these are very valid concerns, but why don’t you think about it like this?”

Also, I do not think it’s very effect­ive or effi­cient to conflate your parents. By kind of hitting them each indi­vidu­ally first, you get to gauge where every­one lies. And what kind of values every­one has, and what people initially think about when you ask them ques­tions. Then you can kind of start to bring it to the dinner table, and you can have a really enrich­ing conver­sa­tion.

What have you learned your­self from your family conver­sa­tions?

The first thing my parents ever taught me was empathy. And the import­ance of rely­ing on your informal support networks. That’s why it’s import­ant you don’t view them as oppon­ents. You should view them as part­ners. My parents just always surprise me whenever they show me that they’re flex­ible and will­ing to listen to me. 

When it comes to polit­ics, when and where would you say is the best place to talk?

Anywhere except with my exten­ded family during any of the major holi­days! Thanks­giv­ing dinners have histor­ic­ally been some of the worst dinners of my life.