Experts Offer Advice on Discussing the Election With Kids
How to discuss politics with your children ahead of an increasingly heated cycle
With two of our three children home on the night of the first presidential debate, my husband and I decided to watch together as a family. We naively hoped it would be an educational evening where the candidates would focus on the issues.
Instead, we felt uncomfortable as our kids watched two adults name-call, eye-roll, and interrupt one another. My husband and I wondered whether we should have encouraged our kids, especially our teenage son, to watch it at all.
But the reality is, parents can’t shield their children from the upcoming election. “Children are very aware and attuned to the tension that this election has created,” says Amanda G. Mintzer, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “Given the uncertainty that comes with a global pandemic and the national anxiety that comes from this election year, children and teens may be feeling high levels of stress and fear from what they are absorbing.”
So how can parents educate their kids about the upcoming election? Our experts break it down.
Help Kids to Evaluate their News Resources
According to a study from Common Sense Media, half of kids say following the news is important to them, and more than two-thirds say that consuming news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable. The issue, more often than not, is the source of that news.
“They are exposed to internet ‘news’ in the form memes, YouTube influencers’ rants…extremist videos, trolls, digital advertising, and other stuff that may look credible but isn’t,” says Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media’s parenting editor. That’s why it’s important to remind children that all media outlets have a point of view, which causes a bias in reporting. Knorr suggests comparing different sources, investigating reporters’ credentials, and exploring facts versus opinions.
Allow Kids to Formulate Opinions
Kids like being in the driver’s seat, so it’s important to let them lead conversations. Instead of pushing a political discussion at the dinner table, take natural openings during the day like in the carpool line or while they eat their afternoon snack.
Rather than giving a lecture, ask them what they think about what’s going on in the world. Use open-ended questions (What do you know about the election? What do you think are important issues to discuss? What worries do you have?) to prompt a conversation.
Be an engaged listener, and don’t be judgmental. Kids, especially teenagers, may not share the same views as their parents. “You can listen to someone else’s views and acknowledge they may be different from your own,” Mintzer says. “If we listen to the reasons someone else may have differing views, we may be able to learn something, or at the very least, share in perspective-taking and engage in a healthy debate.”
If a child repeats something false or inflammatory, don’t dismiss them or make them feel stupid. Instead, help them evaluate the source. “Explain how candidates may bring up some things as a distraction or to get attention,” Knorr says. “Steer the conversation back to the important issues in the election. Ask your kids to identify two specific positions for each candidate to keep them focused on the real issues.”
Encourage them to ask questions, and if you don’t know the answer, be honest. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I am happy to research this topic with you online.”
Model Good Behavior
Kids hear what we say to them, but they also overhear what we say to others, so it’s important be good role models. “We want our children and teens to know that people have different opinions, life experiences, and perspectives and they still deserve kindness and respect,” Mintzer says. ”Be mindful of the language you use around your children and teens, especially when feeling emotional.”
It’s fine to share your opinion of a candidate with their children. “Stating your preferences can help model healthy debating,” Mintzer explains. “For example, ‘I really like when this candidate talks about these issues because I feel that it’s important for our country.’” And if a candidate says something untrue or unkind, simply say, “I don’t like the way she called him a name. That’s rude.”
Raising Good Citizens
Ultimately, political discussions provide teachable moments, so don’t shy away from them. “These conversations with kids are an opportunity to start planting the seeds of the importance of civic duty,” Mintzer says, “and what it means to be a responsible community member when it comes to voting. “
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