Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Explaining Politics to Your Little Ones

Do children sense the divisiveness of this year's election?

Over the last few months, the rolling hills of the little suburb where I live sprouted all sorts of new and exotic metallic trees.  By mid-September, we had a veritable jungle of political endorsements in just about everyone’s yard. 

Belmont, MA, the town I call home and the town also of Mr. Romney, was amazingly split on multiple issues.  Some of these “trees” asked me to vote for Obama.  Others asked me to vote for Romney.  Some “trees” talked about Senator Brown and Elizabeth Warren.  A few “trees” even touted reasons both for and against the legalization of medical cannabis.

Now, imagine my 7-year-old daughter’s experience as we make our morning trek to school through this busy and often divisive election season.  In our 10-minute walk we encounter about 28 signs.  One day we counted them all just to occupy our minds.

“Who are you rooting for?” she asked.

“What do you mean,” was my reply.  I thought maybe she was talking about sports.

“Do you want Elizabeth Warren to beat Obama?  Because you said last night at dinner that you liked Obama.”

She paused.

“Daddy,” she said.  “Do you even know Obama?”

“Well sweetie,” I tried, “Elizabeth Warren is running for Senate and Obama is running for president.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what?” I responded.

“Why are they running? Do they have to run?  Don’t they get tired?”

I laughed and she felt embarrassed and I felt bad. She was, after all, just trying to make sense of all the frenzy. 

“Running means trying to get us to vote for them” I said, and then added, “I can see how you could get confused.”

“You’re the one who sounds confused,” she replied.  “First Warren, then Obama.  Make up your mind!”

She paused again.

“And why," she aked, "Is everyone so angry?”

“Who’s angry?” I replied, sort of stunned.

You are.  Mom.  Everyone.  Look at all these signs."  She pointed at an Obama sign. "Doesn’t Romney feel bad when the sign isn’t for him?”

And this is when it really hit me (a supposed expert in child development).  Politics, and especially divisive politics, are really confusing for a kid.  What sounds heated in TV debates feels like a scary playground argument to a 7 year-old.  What sounds hopeless at a dinner table discussion feels like a proclamation that every zoo in the world will close.  (My youngest daughter likes zoos.)  Politics is a contact sport, they say, but with the reach of media in more profound and more prolific ways then ever before, my 7 year-old was “playing politics” without any pads.  She needed some protection. 

So, what do we tell our kids?

I guess I'd start with the way we already tell our kids about arguments.  Remember that school aged children think in terms of concrete rules.  Four fouls is an out every single time in kickball.  It is against the rules to call people names.  We are expected to treat each other nicely.

 

But those rules don’t mean that we won’t disagree.  Humans, by definition, are wired to disagree.  We’re actually pretty miserable if we don’t have the chance to be contrary. If we’re lucky and if we work hard, our disagreements move us forward.  A playground dispute over who goes first up the ladder for the slide isn’t that different, in the eyes of a 7 year-old, from a televised debate about economic entitlements.  That’s why the political scene seemed so strange to my musing child.  She’d seen all this stuff before, but only when it came from the mouths of other kids who seemed like they were about to get in trouble.

As we move awkwardly forward now, remind your little ones about how our system works.  Remind them that if we don’t argue, then we actually can’t move forward.  Remind them that arguing and disagreeing is a normal and healthy part of living with each other in a community.  If we don’t voice our views, we have especially ourselves to blame if we don’t like what we get.  And, if, after voicing our views, we don’t get the outcome we wanted, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to find some kind of middle ground where we can live comfortably with one another.  We must learn to tolerate and even embrace these gray areas.

“It’s called compromise,” I told her.

“It sounds hard,” she responded.

And what could I say to that?   

 

Steven Schlozman’s novel, The Zombie Autopsies, is currently being adapted for film by George Romero  

 

 

 

  

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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