Your Kids Are Paying Attention: How to Talk to Them About Politics

Posted by on November 11, 2016.

I don’t want to talk about politics. You don’t want to talk about politics. But let’s talk about how we talk to kids about politics. Because they’re paying attention, and if we don’t help them frame what they’re hearing in context, they’ll fill in their own blanks. Just because they won’t be eligible to vote for a few years doesn’t mean elections don’t affect them. So it’s worth starting the conversation of how our political process works on the local, state, and national levels early.

I remember the first presidential election I was alive for (though I won’t tell you which one it was). I remember being confused about why my parents were yelling at the TV and why I couldn’t watch my usual cartoons. When my dad was thrilled at the outcome, I asked if that guy on the TV was a friend of his and that’s why he was so excited. My parents explained that no, they didn’t know him personally but they believed in the things he stood for. But I didn’t really get how the President of the United States impacted our lives. Your kids are paying attention. Help them understand why democracy matters.

This parenting.com article explains why talking with kids about the political process is so important. Even if they don’t understand what policies a candidate supports or how electoral systems work, they pick up on your emotional cues, the language and rhetoric on TV, the radio, and as they learn to read, they see the often divisive reporting everywhere. An open dialogue about understanding others’ points of view is important, not just for your kids’ future civic engagement, but for their development as people.

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources and suggestions out there for how to talk to your kids about politics in a respectful way catered to their age and comprehension level that helps them understand how various political and electoral systems work. It helps to begin with small examples close to home. Most elementary and middle schools have elections for student council and special committees with additional responsibilities, and many schools vote for class officers. These processes of campaigning, and listening to others’ ideas, and placing their vote can help walk them through the process. It’s also helpful to have parents or other adults guiding them with questions like, “What do you think is important (in your school, town, etc.)?” “What do you think should change or could be done better?” “Why do you support that candidate?” And talk to your kids about your own political beliefs. Try to focus on policy, the things you want to see happen, as opposed to just personal preferences. Those matter too, but are what kids are more likely to pick up on through media and overhearing adult conversation and usually don’t give them the full picture of what a candidate represents.

When I went at my local elementary school to vote on Tuesday, I was greeted by a big sign that explained “Today, U.S. Citizens are coming to our school to vote for the U.S. President.” The political process was happening right inside the school and kids were talking about it. I saw parents filling out ballots with their children by their side, explaining in whispers what each of these categories meant. As I exited the polling place, I was bombarded by a group of kids outside frantically waving signs that said “Tell Me Why You Voted.”

“We’re taking a poll,” the one who caught me first explained. “And we’re going to tell our class why people voted.”

I told her that I thought it was important to exercise your right to vote to try to make a difference in your community and ensure people who represent what you want to see happen in your town, state and country are elected to represent your rights and ideas. My little pollster nodded along like she’d heard that kind of thing already this morning. I was impressed with the school – and these kids – for encouraging a thoughtful discussion between kids and adults about the civic process and why it mattered to individuals in their community. That’s one poll I’m actually interested in.

I was in fourth grade (around the age of those curious young pollsters) when I wrote my first letter to a politician, the then-governor of Vermont, regarding education policy. Looking back, my views of that policy have changed somewhat as I’ve grown up and developed ideas that don’t always mirror the dinnertime conversations my parents were having then or the PTA meetings I was brought along to. But I had a strong opinion based on what I knew then and how I saw it impacting my school, our resources and opportunities. When I shared my opinions with my mom, she encouraged me to write to the governor, who had recently championed this particular policy, and helped me edit my letter (I remember, for instance, she explained that I really meant “adulthood” when I wrote that this policy would impact us all as we reached adultery.). And to my shock, the governor wrote back! He signed his name and everything. It was a thoughtful letter that addressed each of my concerns, and I was so proud to have engaged in a dialogue with the most important policy-maker in our state that I shared the letter for Show and Tell.

It’s important for kids to feel that they are involved in the political process, that someone is hearing their views, even if they aren’t able to cast a vote just yet. It’s important for them to go to local meetings and school forums and see how the process works, and hear from the grown-ups in their lives why everyone’s opinion counts.

As always, one of the best ways to start a meaningful conversation with kids is through books. This 2014 New York Times Article by Michele Ann Abate, “Children’s Books Should Offer a Political Primer,” says Children do not live in an apolitical world, in which they are either unaware of political issues or unaffected by their social, economic and legal impact. In the same way that books for young readers work to develop reading literacy, they should also strive to instill political literacy, exposing children to a wide array of controversial subjects from an equally large array of perspectives.” There is no shortage of children’s books about political processes, from class to presidential elections, and they’re a great place for kids to start developing an understanding of the electoral process. They can also be a wonderful tool for you to initiate conversations with kids by asking about what they thought of the book, how the campaign in it was run (if that’s relevant) and how they may have voted.

Here are some children’s books with political themes that may help explain how the system works in a clear, engaging way.

There are also fun websites for kids, like Scholastic Election and Ben (Franklin)’s Guide to the U.S. Government that teach kids about systems of the U.S. government through games, videos, and vocabulary lists. PBS Kids also has some helpful discussion points to guide you in conversations with your kids about the U.S. political system. However you choose to do it, start the conversation early. It won’t be long before your kids are the ones going to the polls – or maybe even on the ballot.

How do you engage your kids in the voting process? 

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