When it comes to gathering for the holidays, there's a lot to look forward to: pie, cute dogs, catching up with loved ones and that blessed moment you finally get to loosen your waistband post-turkey feast. And then there are the things we dread — like tense conversations with our nearest and dearest, especially when kids are listening.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of more than 1,500 Americans reveals which topics of conversation people are most loathe to discuss around children during holiday gatherings. Topping the list is politics, which 36% of respondents said they were uncomfortable talking about in the presence of kids.
Finances are a close second, according to 34% of those surveyed, followed by community gossip (27%) and current events (15%). Overall, female respondents were more likely to express reservations about approaching touchy topics in front of kids, while young respondents aged 18 to 29 were most likely to want to steer clear of political discussions (40%).
Those topics can be dicey whether kids are present or not, the poll found. As Yahoo Life previously reported, politics was considered the most stressful topic at holiday get-togethers, according to 40% of women and 27% of men. Finances again came in second, with current events ranked as the third most anxiety-inducing topic.
Interestingly, just 10% of men and women considered community gossip to be stress-inducing, despite their reluctance to dish while kids are listening.
Topics like pop culture, sports and family updates were also considered safe or enjoyable by most respondents, regardless of kids being in attendance or not. And 26% of those surveyed said they didn't feel uncomfortable with any of the suggested topics when kids are around.
Parents may want to avoid being drawn into discussions about, say, the upcoming election, Gaza and how much they're paying for daycare this year, for their own sake. But if those debates do happen, and kids are tuning in, here's how to handle it.
Politics and current events
As war rages abroad and the 2024 presidential election draws nearer, kids are bound to pick up chatter — some of it heated — about various hot-button issues. Speaking to Today in 2020, political science professor Edmond David Hally explained why kids can benefit from seeing adults engage in civil discussions with people who have different political beliefs.
"I think part of the reason the country seems so divided is that discussion of politics is often taboo and that allows us to fall victim to the echo chamber," said Hally. "Whenever I talk to people with different political beliefs, I often try to legitimately understand why they believe what they believe … I often don't end up changing my opinions after talking to people I disagree with, but I find I have more in common with them than I would have assumed before."
What happens if tempers flare? Resist name-calling and focus on keeping order. "If you are family and/or friends, you should be able to discuss difficult subjects, or subjects where you all do not agree, and do it in a polite, civil way," etiquette expert Diane Gottsman previously told Yahoo Life. "And just say, ‘Our goal is to keep this civil. We can have varying opinions, but I’d appreciate it if you would keep your tone down.’ I think the operative term is ‘let’s keep this civil.’”
Parents also have an opportunity to calmly answer any questions kids might have afterward, and can discuss the issues in a more age-appropriate manner.
A lot of us have financial anxiety, and worry about passing that on to our kids. But as Real Simple reported last year, research shows that kids are more aware about money than we think. According to Lynsey Romo, lead author of a 2014 study conducted by North Carolina State University, "even young kids are aware of financial issues, regardless of whether parents talk with them about money. And if parents aren't talking with their kids about subjects like family finances or debt, the kids are drawing their own conclusions — which may not be accurate. Even if parents don't want to discuss family finances with their children, it may be worthwhile to explain why they don't want to discuss that topic."
Discussing money and teaching good habits — like saving allowance, or sourcing used toys from Buy Nothing groups before spending more on something new — early can help get kids on the right track. That said, parents needn't feel obligated to join in on discussions about the housing market or what holiday shopping will look like this year if they're uncomfortable. If the money chatter is too much, politely excusing yourself and your child, or changing the subject, is reasonable.
The poll results show that adults don't mind gossiping when kids aren't around. If they are, however, consider what your child might take away from your conversation — and whether it's worth the risk of them repeating to Cousin Sally that she and her husband seem to be on the rocks. Speculating about an in-law being on Ozempic, for example, suggests that it's OK to talk about other people's bodies. And as clinical psychologist Tasha Brown previously told Yahoo Life, younger kids in particular have a hard time not taking gossip or rants literally, and are more likely to pass it on because they don't have a filter.
As they grow, kids are more likely to pick up the nuances of our complaints, but parents should still make an effort to explain why they're venting and what it does and doesn't mean. There's a difference between dumping our drama on a kid (and potentially giving them anxiety about other people) and acknowledging our frustrations and explaining how things will improve.
“Sometimes when we get really upset, we can say, ‘I am upset so this is how I'm expressing it,’ or ‘I'm really frustrated, so this is why it's coming up and out,’” Brown suggested. “Make that connection between the feeling and the behavior. Then share how the problem is going to be solved or rectified so that they know it's this full-circle thing.”
Older kids may be mature enough to grasp more insight into family dynamics, but parents should resist using them as a sounding board if they aren't ready, or don't want to get involved.
In a nutshell, holiday conversations can be stressful for many of us, and we are inclined to protect our kids from that feeling. For more tips on navigating — or completely avoiding — uncomfortable discussions at Thanksgiving dinner, read here ... and if all else fails, bring headphones for the kids.