If you have more than one child living in your home, you certainly own a black-and-white-striped shirt. It’s the kind parents wear to referee sibling squabbles.
It's called family.
Kids have white-hot disagreements over everything imaginable. Some of it matters; most of it doesn’t. The beauty of children is how often they can fight in the morning, digging waist-deep lines in the sand to protect their territory. But by afternoon, they’re playing Hungry Hungry Hippos on the family room floor or a game of H-O-R-S-E at the driveway basketball hoop.
Sometimes the disagreements are more serious and the recovery time is longer and more awkward. But except in very rare cases — the tragic fracturing of relationships that never heal — the drama dissipates like a weak storm system and drifts on. Despite the differences and colorful words lobbed in the heat of battle, children comprehend that they are members of the same family with the same heritage and long-term goals.
At their core, no matter how different they look or how disparate their short-term interests, a family’s happiness is found in compromise, service and sacrifice. Individuals won’t always get everything they want, but the family gets what it needs.
I’ve witnessed disagreements that stretch on for weeks, months and even years. But even then, isn’t there almost always an opportunity to come back together, to agree to disagree on the past and to press forward? In the end, we remember that there is much more that binds us together than pulls us apart.
Lately I’ve noticed some of the classic signs of sibling rivalry emerging with my old children. In particular, my 9-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter are expert button-pushers. If they gave Ph.D.s in antagonizing, I’d be referring to both as Dr. Wright.
But when the remote control stops flying, they recognize there is no good in the persistent battles. The longer they fight, the deeper the wedges. They might be slow to admit it, but they genuinely care about one another. Despite often seeing the world in different ways, they know there’s plenty to like.
As we sweep up the exit polls and digital hanging chads of the 2012 elections, it seems Democrats and Republicans remain stuck in a cycle of sibling spats. Some of the disagreements are so trivial it’s easy to imagine lawmakers whispering to one another on the playground: “Hey, that idea came from a Democrat. It must be awful.”
Another shouts from the monkey bars. “I heard that new proposal was written by a Republican. It's not even worth my time to read it."
Unlike the kids who eventually put the games away and say family prayer at bedtime, politicians never stop playing. They’re so addicted to score-keeping, they compete even when the stakes are meaningless.
Obviously, some fights are worth having and principles shouldn’t be compromised for the sake of singing the same song at the campfire. But too often politicians find disagreement simply because they think they're supposed to. They're so busy arguing based on party affiliation they have no time to sit and actually solve problems.
Have they forgotten their shared heritage?
Politicians could learn a little something from their youngest constituents. Unlike too many elected officials, siblings understand that there is too much at stake to allow themselves to be permanently driven apart. They understand that compromise is essential to the family adventure.
As the country heals from divisive campaigns at every level, Democrats and Republicans must find the courage to sit around Washington's kitchen table, identify the problems, negotiate solutions and commit to making progress toward measurable, shared goals.
There is a time to disagree and stand firm. There is a time to compromise and find common ground with everyone at the table.
Now more than ever, it's time for leaders to come back together and behave like members of the same American family.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.