Talking about politics is always tricky. The weeks (and months) surrounding an election can be a time of difficult social interactions, personal frustration and anxious anticipation. A frequent question we’re asked is, "How can we navigate talking about politics with our children?"
- When is the right time to talk about politics with them?
- How do I bring up the discussion and make it relevant to them?
No matter your personal political views, most of us want the same outcome: to raise the next generation to be responsible and engaged citizens.
But What Does It Mean to Be a Good Citizen?
Being a good citizen can mean different things to different people, but some of the common components are:
- Being knowledgeable and informed about local, regional and national issues
- Volunteering in the community through service organizations
- Participating in advocacy for certain causes and policies you find important
- Participating in the governing process by voting in elections
To help children become good citizens, we have to start by engaging them in conversation. These conversations can happen a lot earlier than many adults think.
Three Years Old
Developmental researchers have shown that children as young as 3-years-old have a basic understanding that there are important people who help make rules for the people around them.
When considering how to start a discussion about politics with a child, think about where they fall along the developmental path to understanding some key concepts:
- Do they understand the difference between opinion and fact?
- Are they able to understand that there are multiple ways to solve a problem?
- Are they able to see that differences of opinion are a natural part of our individuality?
Then you can base your conversation with them on how much they already know. Begin by helping them understand the role of government in our country and why rules are important to keep our society functioning. This can happen through reading books, finding online lessons or learning about specific government positions.
In general, preschool and early elementary-aged kids can talk about concrete aspects of politics, like learning the different offices in the government and how decisions are made. For this age group:
- Try focusing on certain issues and responsibilities of each office rather than individuals that you do or don't agree with personally.
- Talk about voting and why it is an important duty in a democracy.
- Discuss local and state government and not just national issues. Most young children are best able to understand how policies impact things directly around them, like local schools, roads and parks.
Another helpful topic to discuss is what a democracy means and that the right to disagree and debate issues is fundamental to the type of government we have. You can use an analogy from home to illustrate how it works. How does your family make decisions, such as what to have for dinner, what TV show/movie to watch, which park to go to or which kind of cereal to buy at the store? Help them identify the issues at hand and why they might be more or less important to certain members of the family. Here’s how this could play out:
- Decision: Choosing a movie to watch
- Issues: rating, length of the movie, topic (comedy, drama, action, etc.)
- Talk them through how each person in the family would prioritize these things differently when voting for what to watch. Ultimately, a decision must be made that won't always please everyone but has hopefully taken into account as many perspectives as possible.
As children get older, adults can help them learn two critical skills related to their developing identity as a citizen:
- How to consume information responsibly and use multiple reliable sources
- How to have discussions with others who don't share their views
As children get into middle and high school, their sense of morality and personal values start to solidify. This is an important time to teach them about how to find reliable information. Although this can be a politicized topic itself at times, most parents can agree that there are many unreliable sources of information that children can see online. Help them understand that their preference for the messenger (a friend, famous person or advertisement) does not necessarily validate the message itself. It can be helpful to show them sources you find reliable or to research a topic together to try and learn all the facts.
Opportunities to Further Engage With Children
Another great way to help engage children of any age in these discussions is to read books, reputable blogs or websites, or watch documentaries together. As difficult as it may be, it is important to model good habits by including some materials from sources you don't always agree with. Show them how you can consider other opinions and viewpoints even if it doesn't necessarily change your mind. You can talk with children about understanding another perspective without agreeing fully. Books on politics and government for all ages are available at your local library:
For Young Children (Early Elementary Age and Younger):
- The Little Book of Presidential Elections by Zack Bush
- When You Grow Up to Vote by Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Markel
- Vote! By Eileen Christelow
For Late Elementary and Middle Schoolers:
- A Kids Book About Voting by Next Up
- The Next President by Kate Messner and Adam Rex
- ABC What an Informed Voter You’ll Be by Modern Kid Press
For Kids in High School:
- How the US Government Works by Syl Sobel
- How Does the US Government Work? by Universal Politics
How to Have Role Playing Conversations
Finally, it can be helpful to role-play difficult conversations that children may have with friends or other people in the community. Empower them with the language they need to answer any difficult questions that come their way. For instance:
- Make sure they understand how to respond in respectful ways to questions about their views or their family's views. For instance, if someone says to them, “No way! How could your parents vote for _____? Are they idiots??” Instead of becoming angry, you can teach them to respond, “There are a lot of complicated things about voting, but I think everyone wants what is best for the country, even if they don’t agree what that is.”
- When watching the news or listening to other discussions about politics, don't let them confuse passion with aggression or anger. If you are feeling particularly frustrated with a certain issue, election or candidate, don't let your own feelings and attitude dampen their interest. Explain your frustration in terms of your own values and priorities and why the issue is so important to you rather than making an opinion about those who don't share the same views.
How to Start the Conversation
Parents and other adults who are talking about politics with children need to use their best judgement about how detailed of a conversation to have. The main goal is to have them be informed and able to eventually form their own opinions rather than taught that a single idea is the only way. Here are some helpful ways to get the conversation started that you can tailor to fit your need:
What do you know about the two people in the presidential race this year?
What would be most important to you if you were president?
What does a democracy mean?
When is the last time you had to make a tough decision? How did you decide?
Why do you think voting is important?
What do you think are important qualities in a leader?
As a political leader, how difficult do you think it would be to balance the needs of the people you serve?