How to Talk With Kids About Politics and Elections

Father and Daughter Voting and Politics
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It has been said that the most difficult topics to talk about objectively are religion and politics.  These topics often drive wedges between friends, family members and coworkers.  And as elections near, the political discussions can be quite rancorous.  Our children are not immune from the political winds, and, particularly at an election time, they can find themselves in the throes of political discussion.

 Talking about politics with children can be a real struggle for many parents.

A recent survey conducted by Care.com examined some of the factors of how and when parents talk with their kids about politics.  Some of the findings included:

  • 13% of parents start talking about politics when their kids are between 5 and 8 years old

  • 30% start the discussions when they are between 6 and 8 years old

  • 27% start when the kids are between 9 and 12 years old

  • About 40% of children ask their parents about politics

  • About 46% of parents talk to their children about politics

  • For those who don’t talk politics, almost 90% believe that their children are too young to understand

So, if you are wanting to talk to your kids about politics and elections, when should you start and how should you approach the subject?

When To Talk Politics With Children

The Care.com survey suggests that most parents start talking about politics when their children are elementary school age (6-12) although some start sooner.

 Katie Bugbee, the senior managing editor at Care.com suggests that there is no single right answer.  In an interview, she said, “Ultimately, the best time to speak with children about politics is a personal family choice. It depends on how comfortable parents are speaking about politics, and how well-equipped they think their children can understand it.”

Perhaps a good indicator of when kids are ready is when they start to ask questions.  This might come up during an election year, or maybe when a public policy issue is in the limelight.  Katie suggests that families start the discussion with younger children with the concept of voting rather than on politics in general.  “Whether or not parents think their kids are ready for the discussion, they are ready to begin learning the importance of voting. Personally, the first step to introducing my children to the realm of politics was letting them know they have that right to vote. Bringing them to the polls with me and asking them, ‘What would you do if you were President?’ can be the start to this discussion. Yes, talking to kids about politics can open a huge can of worms, but this is a time in their life you can discuss the life outside of their bubble. “

Talk Issues, Not Politics

Once you have covered the subject of voting and talked about the structure of the political system, it is often best to talk about the public policy issues that are of interest to you, your children and your family before you delve into trickier discussions like about candidates and campaigns.

 It is often good to start discussions with local issues with which your children can relate.  Maybe a local bond election for a new school or another issue that is being debated in the community would be a good place to start.  Talk with them about the issue, the pros and cons and how to think about  how the community will decide on the issue.

Once you have helped them through the process of thinking about a local issue, you can broach broader issue topics like health care, gun control, and energy.   Katie suggests that a parent can start with the basics and help kids to learn to think about these issues.

“Encourage solutions and challenge their thoughts. There are certain topics kids might understand, at the very basic level: immigration, health care, gun restrictions, and school funding could be some you could synthesize and explain very simply. With the tougher issues, explaining the problem in a brief and vague answer, then asking how they would fix it is a great way to get them to develop their political views and values.”

Stay Neutral and Help Them Find Their Own Ideas

One of our most basic responsibilities as a parent is to raise children to become adults who can think, make good decisions, and contribute to their communities.  If we spend time convincing them to see things our way and from our vantage point, we may unknowingly discourage them from learning these important skills.  
So as you talk to your kids about these issues, help them see all sides and to see how complicated they can be.  Help them understand that good people can disagree on fundamental beliefs and still be sincere, good people.  Help them find objective information about issues and candidates online and to consider all sides before they decide how they personally feel about the issues.

Katie suggests, “ It’s important for them to understand how much thought and compassion needs to go into solving these problems. As complicated as politics are, it’s a great opportunity for you to teach both individual and family values. You might have a child who thinks entirely differently than you do – and that’s okay.”

The idea of helping kids make values-based decisions about issues is an important one.  Focus on the values that underlie your positions (and the positions of others) so that they can see these things from a values-based perspective.

Avoid the Ugly Side Where Possible

Katie suggests that we help divert kids away from the sordid side of politics.  “They ultimately hear everything at school, but, personally, I’m hoping to keep this away from my kids as much as possible because I don’t want them seeing that any “name-caller” is a well-regarded adult with (possible) power. My response is something like: sometimes when people really want to win, they get really mean.”

Certainly, our political process, particularly at a national level, can be vitriolic and uncivil.  Most parents hope that their children are not empowered to be that way by watching the political process.  But as we keep our discussions with kids focused more on policy and less on personality, we can keep the nastiness in context and help them to see how the dialogue can be much better than they may see played out on the evening news.

Helping our kids become engaged and committed citizens is a part of what we do as parents.  By following some of these principles, we can make the opportunity to talk politics with our kids a positive part of our role as teachers and parents.