Election season offers many excellent teaching moments: how elections work, what democracy means, the value of leadership. Talking to kids about politics helps them understand the world and their place in it, and starts to shift their thinking from “me” to “we.” Which is why it’s important to discuss with kids, even those too young to yet understand all the specific policy points or platforms, why politics matters; why it matters who’s in charge, and why they should care.
At the same time, the election also affords many opportunities to say things in front of our children that are probably better suited to grown-up ears. It’s easy, and in many cases admirable, to be passionate about a political race or outcome. But when you find yourself getting worked up, it can be a good idea to ask yourself: Am I sticking to the issues? While trash talk is par for the course, both in the media and in our homes, it’s key to remember that our children are often hanging on our every word. Younger kids in particular have a tendency to assume their parents’ political views and parties; they’re also more likely to repeat what they’ve heard at home out of context or without much thought or understanding.
At a recent apple orchard birthday party, 8-year-old Noah got into an argument with some other third grade guests. The feud wasn’t over who picked the most, or biggest, apples, or who got to eat the last cider doughnut. Instead, Noah’s mom, Gwen, reports he came to her crying over his love of President Obama. “One of the other little boys said he couldn’t’ be friends with Noah anymore, because Noah is a Democrat,” says Gwen. “The other boy’s argument was, essentially, that Democrats are stupid, Obama is a bad man, and that to be a Republican was to be on ‘the winning team.’ There was no room for argument; his understanding was, I can’t be your friend.” Though it’s likely the boy picked up his politics at home, it’s probably safe to assume his parents hadn’t intended for their son to be ending friendships over his grade school understanding of the American party system. Or maybe they did; it’s hard to know with Republicans. (See how easy it is?)
Older kids, meanwhile, can be just as dangerous, if not more, when it comes to sharing their, or your, political views. Teenagers are famously cavalier and grandiose. In Cincinnati, a 16-year-old high school girl was investigated for a September tweet that read, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama ... like ASAP.” While it’s okay for you—and, perhaps, your child—to dislike or even hate the president, it’s not okay to say he should be killed. That’s not just my opinion—that’s the law.
Of course, having thorough and even-handed discussions with your child about politics doesn’t guarantee he’ll always agree with you. That’s okay. Your job isn’t to convince your child to share your views. It’s to show him where your beliefs come from and why they’re important to you. Then, it’s up to him to make his own decision—and not get angry with you for disagreeing with her, either. Democracy in action, indeed.
Some thoughts to keep in mind when talking politics with your children:
Explain yourself. Declaring, “Romney’s an ass,” or even “I don’t believe in war,” doesn’t say much to your kids about why you support a particular candidate. Teach your kids what’s behind your convictions—why you hold them. Teens in particular should be able to articulate the issues that they agree with, as well as those they don’t. Remind them, however, that in order to make a solid decision, it’s also important to try to understand the other side’s arguments and point of view.
Don’t disparage. It’s not easy, I know. But it’s important to do your best not to make negative comments about candidates in front of your kids. Instead, talk about the positive aspects of your preferred candidate to indicate why that person might be the better choice. And try to stick to the issues: While it may be fun to talk about Romney’s faux tan or Obama’s abs, doing so in front of the kids can send the message to kids that looks trump policies.
Go local. The presidential race is obviously the biggest ticket item, but talking to kids about local politics can help open up clear, relatable discussions about how politics affects our everyday lives. Maybe a local race determines what your kids will read in school next year, or whether your town gets a new playground. For older kids, try relating national issues, such as military service or women’s health, to their aspirations or personal experiences. Helping them identify topics that are important and relevant to their lives will help them grasp why every voice counts.
Keep it fun. When my kids were younger, I’d take them with me into the voting booth. It was a necessity, but I also wanted them to watch me engage in the process of voting. The outing was exciting for everyone, especially when they were very small, and I think helped instill in them an understanding of the political process. At night, we’d watch the news together as the results came in and cheer on our candidate.
Teach them well. Even if you monitor the conversation at home, your child or teen will likely still encounter negative comments at school or elsewhere. You can’t control others. Instead, let your kids know your position on trash talk and encourage them to keep their half of the conversation civil. If that’s not possible, teach them how to politely disengage. Debating politics can be a fun exercise, but not if it devolves into calling the other person a moron. And let them know it’s okay to be friends with people who don’t share our political beliefs—and to be undecided on our own political beliefs as well. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Sorry, but I don’t like to talk about politics with friends.” Sometimes, it’s the only way.
This first appeared on Huffington Post.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com