Thanksgiving should be a time to reconnect with our families and traditions. But this year may be more difficult than usual. After a politically fraught year, you and all the members of your extended family might not – and this is likely an understatement – be seeing eye-to-eye politically.
There’s a practical answer to this problem, and it’s one that I’ve seen work over and over again during my life and much of my career observing and studying families. One pattern that repeatedly emerges is that healthy, high-functioning families focus on what unites them, as opposed to picking at what divides them.
There’s some good psychological underpinning for this approach: arguing over politics usually doesn’t do any good. As Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman points out, the chance of you being able to change someone’s mind on a deeply held political view is close to zero.
Since political arguments are almost never productive, take my advice – this Thanksgiving, resist the temptation to engage in them. Even an offhand mention of a recent political event or of a particular leader could quickly spoil the whole dinner.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying families should never discuss politics. Our nation is currently grappling with all kinds of incredibly difficult issues, and it’s important that families develop the ability to discuss them calmly and thoughtfully.
Thanksgiving is not the time for political debates. It’s a time to emphasize all the things that unite you as a family, and to work on developing the kinds of bonds that hold a family together.
But Thanksgiving is not the time for political debates. It’s a time to emphasize all the things that unite you as a family, and to work on developing the kinds of bonds that hold a family together.
This is particularly important for family businesses. Seventy percent of family businesses don’t endure beyond one generation – and that’s often because they’ve failed to develop the kind of family culture of tolerance and acceptance that can sustain a business through the generations.
If the younger generation’s memories of holidays are solely of adults arguing over politics, they’re far more likely to grow up and continue that destructive pattern. Instead, have the family business leaders model good behavior, such as consideration, tact and simple kindness.
Encourage Family Traditions: They’re the Lifeblood of Identity
It's through traditions that we connect with our families and engage with our heritage. Traditions are our rituals, ceremonies and the activities that we reliably do as a family through the years and across the generations.
They're an anchor in the changing sea of our life experiences. We get older, we go to school, we get jobs, people drift in and out of our lives, but our family traditions can continue through all our life stages as they continuously reinforce "What it means to be us."
Traditions help create a shared sense of identity and belonging, and help establish continuity between the generations. Many families have specific Thanksgiving traditions, and eagerly anticipate the annual football game in the backyard, pumpkin pie, or time spent in prayer and thanks. In my family, we spend part of the day wrapping holiday presents for disaster victims.
Tell Your Family Stories
Here again, families can learn from Thanksgiving: Each year, we tell part of our country’s story – how a courageous group of men and women braved the frigid Atlantic to find the freedom to practice their faith. This annual retelling reminds us of all that we value as Americans: freedom, bravery, tolerance and helping our neighbors.
You can do the same as a family. Retell your story. Think about where you are, where you came from, and where you’re going. And if crafting that story seems too hard or complicated, start out with some simple questions. Does everyone know who they’re named for? Do you know what your parents’ first jobs were? Do you know where your aunts and uncles grew up?
Conversations like these often turn out to be incredibly rich and rewarding – so much so that you might want to record the details people recall so as to remember them. Whether it’s making a family coffee table book – what we do every year in my family – or hiring a videographer to film interviews, it’s a worthwhile investment in your family culture.
There’s no denying that Thanksgiving, and indeed the holidays in general, can be a challenging time for families. But by intentionally using it to develop and deepen strong family bonds, you can make the most of the most wonderful time of the year. Focus on the things that unite you and your family, not what divides you.