How Much Should I Talk to My Kid about Political Issues?

Be the disseminator of information, and build a person who has a voice.

Posted Oct 12, 2018

     My husband walked in late on Thursday evening, the day of the Kavanaugh hearing. I washed down the counters and finished picking up dinner as the kids bounced around a bit while their homework lay on the counter waiting for attention. A completely typical weekday evening in our home.
     I too had worked that day and spent any free moment sneaking in peaks of the hearing on my smartphone. It was so consuming. Instead of doing notes in between patients, I watched intently, huddled over my phone on my desk. I was totally consumed with what was happening – who said what, how each person presented, how the general society was responding. My husband followed closely too. And, so did my patients. It seemed like everyone was listening and watching, and all my patients that day came in and talked about it. Those that had experienced sexual assault were particularly triggered and spent the 50 minutes processing their experience and what this hearing meant for them and the other survivors out in the world. It was a mixed day in the sense that I felt more connected to the outside community as I watched other people listen to the hearing in corners of the street and in shops, seeing they cared as much as I did, yet so many painful emotions were brought up for my patients – anger, sadness, loneliness, disconnection, disappointment, and memories of trauma.   
     When my husband arrived home, we jumped right into talking about the hearing. Per usual, we were generally aligned in our beliefs, but we took moderately opposing views. We argued what we thought was fair and right, sprinkled in with bits of news we had caught from the day. From the outside, it might have looked a little intense but for us, it wasn’t distressing. We appreciate each other’s thoughtfulness, intellect, and care for life outside of our family, and a healthy debate is one way this shows up for us.  
      Somewhere in the middle of the debate, my boys (9, 7) showed up again in the kitchen. My 7-year-old spun off like a passing cyclone but my 9-year-old paused, watched, and listened. I mentally noted him immediately (as did my husband), yet we silently agreed to continue on as if he wasn’t there. I always ask patients how emotion was expressed in their home growing up. As a psychologist, it is always reassuring when someone had a home that welcomed all feelings in a safe and supportive way, and this always sits with me in moments like these. Yes, our tone lightened some, but we pressed on with the debate. After a few minutes, my son asked that we “stop fighting.”

Photo by Nicholas Postema on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Nicholas Postema on Unsplash

     Many parents probably would have stopped in that moment. But, we decided not to. In some quick, unspoken agreement, we both knew we weren’t deeply angry and felt it was important for him to hear and understand. We wanted him to see and experience strong emotion and know that it can be safe, important, and interesting. Disagreement and confrontation are a part of life, and it is important to learn how to communicate your views (not be mean) and listen to an opposing argument. So, I explained what we were talking about and invited him to join the conversation.  After all, he had listened to part of the hearing with me on public radio earlier.
     That afternoon, NPR hummed in the kitchen over the radio while the kids were in and out. I called my oldest son’s attention to the news and asked if he wanted to listen with me. He wanted to, so I gave a quick, developmentally appropriate explanation of what the hearing was about – a judge was about to be appointed to the highest court in our country and a woman came forward and said he touched her inappropriately and tried to pull off her clothes when they were in high school. Now, they are investigating if he did that, and if so, he should not be appointed. He listened.

     Then, in this moment, Cam joined the conversation. He had thoughts. And his thoughts were very similar to the thoughts and questions many people were having. You have to believe the victim! Nobody should have to endure someone touching them like that! How can you just punish someone without knowing for sure? And, why did she wait so long to say something? We talked for awhile and I applauded his thoughtfulness for trying to think and feel his way through this complicated matter. We didn’t come up with a solution, but we just talked about the issues at hand. It wasn’t a long talk but it was one that wouldn’t have happened if we just “stopped fighting.” 
     The thing is, we did stop “fighting.” We started listening – to Cam. It wasn’t an opportunity for either Mark or me to embed our own thoughts and feelings onto Cam. It was a chance to engage him in a much larger social, political issue and teach him his voice matters. So often, kids and adults alike are intimidated by having an opinion in larger political issues. I want him to know it is important for him to think and feel and speak. To throw his hand in a much bigger arena. 
     So, follow your gut. Know your kid, and what he/she can tolerate. I know this would not make Cam anxious, or distressed, but it would for some kids. But, find ways to engage your child in thoughtful debate and push the envelope a bit. Kids know more and hear more than you think. Be the source of information for their forming thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Set the precedent that talking matters, that their voice matters, and that debate is often healthy.