As we adults are talking about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, our children are undoubtedly paying attention to these conversations, either in person or through various media. No matter where your politics lie, children pick up on our subtle and not-so-subtle cues. They see our hopefulness, disgust or cynicism, and make meaning of these ideas for their own understanding of how our political system works. Teens and tweens are especially aware of these conversations as they become aware of the world outside of their own limited spheres.
This election cycle has caused confusion and uncertainty with children, particularly due to the polarizing rhetoric on the campaign trail. My tween recently asked me whether her Korean-American friend and her family would have to leave the country if Donald Trump is elected president. I was glad she felt she could ask me this question, but I hate that it was a question she felt she needed to ask. Unfortunately many parents have had to address similar questions from their kids, or address reports of bullying at school as a result of rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Our primary job as parents is to reassure our children that they can come to us with their questions, fears, and concerns. As a political scientist, educator, and mother I view the 2016 elections as a learning opportunity to talk to my own children, ages 16 and 11, about our government, the people we select to make decisions on our behalf, and our role as citizens in the process.
To be sure, the conversations I would have with my children if they were younger would be different and likely narrowly focused on more basic ideas about the purpose of an election and supporting people who want to be helpers (the word I used for politicians when they were younger.) My approach and suggestions for how to talk to kids about the 2016 elections, regardless of age, center on two main ideas.
First, I monitor my kids’ media consumption. Most of us already pay attention to and set limits on our kids’ use of electronic devices, both shared ones (such as a family computer) and those given for personal use (a cell phone), and also their participation in social media. My expectations for both my children are the same: I retain the right to know what they are watching, what sites they are visiting, to whom they are talking, and what they are posting. Some parents may disagree with this approach, but it is crucial in our family for discussions like this. For example, my teenager loves The Onion, a satirical news website, and my tween loves the Ellen DeGeneres show. Knowing their media consumption habits helps me keep pace with the images and messages they are receiving about popular culture and even elections. It also provides an opening to talk about this information and provide an understandable context of how our government actually works. I also pay closer attention to my own media consumption around my children including how much news I watch and what I share on social media, as my own reactions are a lens through which they see the candidates and their campaigns.
Second, I use the election to talk about family values – our family’s values. Respecting the right of someone to be heard, including if and when we disagree, is one such value. Our extended family is quite large and distinct enough in life experiences to prefer candidates across the political spectrum. My kids know that one aunt “feels the Bern”, their nana is “ready for Hillary”, and some of their Midwestern cousins “trust Ted.” They know that we do not have to agree with their choice of candidate to love them or want to spend time with them because they are family. We also talk about the importance of treating others with decency and kindness, and working together to solve problems. My children understand these are basic rules in our family that hold true even when these values are not always evident in the words and deeds of candidates or the voters who support them.
We have talked extensively about how labeling entire groups of people as criminals or extremists is not only false but a betrayal of a person’s sense of dignity. Again, the depth of these conversations differs with my tween and teen. With my tween we’ve talked about what stereotypes are and how untrue and negative ideas are used by some as an excuse to treat others poorly. With my teen we’ve talked about how stereotypes have been used throughout history to justify the worst of human behavior, from slavery to genocide. Both kids know our family values are all about education, tolerance, and speaking out for others who can’t always speak for themselves. I want my children to make connections between our values and candidates’ positions on the important problems facing our country.
When my tween asked me if her friend would have to leave the country if Donald Trump is elected president, the conversation was made easier (although not less disheartening) because I knew her frame of reference. I knew what she was likely to have heard through her consumption of media and because we’d already had age-appropriate conversations about stereotypes I knew what she was likely to understand from this conversation.
I reassured her that her friend and family are safe because our Constitution protects its citizens. I explained that our government is a democracy which means that different people have different jobs and that no one person, even a president, gets the final say. I referred to that same example with my teen to talk about U.S. citizenship, immigration, and civil liberties.
Being a political science professor can sometimes put me in an uncomfortable space at social functions or with extended family. I’m often asked what I really think about a politician or policy and I generally try to remain neutral. As strange as it may sound, I try to be an apolitical political scientist. It has been hard to remain apolitical about Donald Trump, especially when faced with questions as heavy as those being asked by my daughter.
Our current political environment is one that is highly polarized and unduly negative, and one that history has shown can lead down a dark path. Donald Trump, in particular, has relied on fear, half-truths, and ridiculous decrees to raise his profile and draw support from a faction of angry and alienated voters. His inflammatory rhetoric and the increasingly violent protests against it have not escaped our children’s attention.
But Donald Trump is one part of an election with many moving parts. In spite, or perhaps because of Trump, the election provides an important opportunity for us as parents to talk to our children about what we value and how our political system works. Even if we do not have control over campaigns and what candidates say and do, we can make an important difference in how our children understand these matters and in our own willingness to be informed, speak up, and vote our preferences this November.