Election years can be complicated, that’s for sure. Not only is there a great deal to understand about the candidates and the difficult issues facing our country, but with so much heated competition, there is also a lot to understand about the parties and the process itself. Emotions are running high and, in a political town like Washington, DC, the intensity of debate is only heightened.
Given the current political landscape, you probably have questions about how to explain this year’s elections to your kids. You might also be wondering how to address the behaviors and language of candidates, as well as the portrayal of them in the media.
As a head of school, I care deeply about helping children make sense of this election cycle and preserving their sense of hope and optimism. Although the months ahead might be challenging for us as parents and educators, I believe election seasons offer us an important opportunity to shape children’s understanding of the democratic process and to promote the importance of asking questions, reflecting, and acting on one’s beliefs.
While schools have an important role to play in helping children understand the political system and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, as well as develop the skills necessary to participate fully in our democratic society, it is vital that you, as parents, share your values with your children in ways that make sense for your family. Below are some suggestions and resources that I hope will help you navigate the rest of the election season.
Tips for Parents
- Younger elementary children and even some preschoolers know this is an election year, so if your children are curious, explore what they know. Ask them questions to gauge their level of understanding and answer their questions in plain language they can understand.
- As you talk with your children, look for opportunities to share some basic election concepts with them. Voting is an idea that young children can grasp and that you can incorporate into family life in simple ways. Children are allowed to accompany parents into the voting booth in every state in the nation. What a great opportunity for children to see you participate actively in the democratic process. With older children who already have some knowledge of government and presidential elections, you can move on to more advanced concepts like the electoral college vs. the popular vote. Here are some resources you might find helpful for explaining elections to kids:
- Washington Post: "Go vote, and take your kids with you"
- Kids.gov: “How to Become the President of the US Poster,” “The Election Process,” "Voting and Election History," and "Midterm Congressional, State, and Local Elections"
- PBS Parents: “Parent’s Guide to Talking About the Presidential Election”
- Social Studies for Kids: “How the President is Elected” and “The Electoral College”
- Be aware that, depending on their age, children have most likely heard about the election from a number of sources—family members, friends at school, and the media. Get a sense of what your children are hearing from various sources and make sure they can handle it with some adult support. You might decide you want to limit the amount of time they are watching the news or the debates.
- It is good for children of all ages to see adults modeling thoughtful participation in the election process. Positive, democratic ideals are imperative to overcome cynicism and to work for change when it is needed. When you share your thoughts and feelings about candidates with your children, avoid negative generalizations and instead, be specific about what you do or don’t like: “I see this candidate saying x, and I believe y” or “I’m not sure that’s right. Let’s see what the statistics say.” You can help your child begin to see the complexity of issues and learn critical thinking skills when you focus on explaining your thoughts rather than only expressing a judgment.
- Be careful what you say in your child’s presence, particularly if you feel discouraged or angry. Children pick up on adults’ emotions, even if they don’t understand the issues that are being discussed. Try hard to avoid language that makes it seem like voting isn’t worth it or labeling a particular candidate as the “lesser of two evils.” If you do become upset by something you see or hear in the moment, be sure to explain why you feel the way you do. Don’t leave children to process this on their own. You can start by saying something like, “I know I sound upset. I want to tell you a little bit about why . . .”
- Parents should actively engage middle schoolers in conversations about the election, rather than waiting for them to bring it up. Encourage your child to pay attention to the news and talk to them about what they are hearing. Even better, watch the news, debates, and conventions together. That will give you the opportunity to start a conversation naturally: “Wow, did you just hear what I heard? What do you think of that?” React and let them talk.
- With older children, you can also discuss strategies that candidates are using to argue for their positions. For example, you might help your older child begin to distinguish between arguments that appeal to the audience’s emotions versus those that appeal to their reason. You can also help your child recognize the difference between attacking an opponent’s personal character and criticizing an opinion or argument. Take the conversation a step further by asking your child what strategies seem most effective.
- Perusing the news online can be a solitary act, especially on small smartphone screens. Consider subscribing to a newspaper or news magazine during election season so you can read articles, analyze headlines, and check out political cartoons together with your child. Once in a while, pick up more than one paper or magazine: comparing the way different news outlets report on the same events will reveal the ways issues, statements, and people, can be interpreted differently. School Library Journal offers suggestions for how to deconstruct magazine covers in their article, "On Magazine Covers and Media Literacy."
- Take a step back from this year’s election. Watch movies about political contests from the past as a starting point for discussion. Common Sense Media has an extensive list of political movies that you can sort for age appropriateness. In addition, the Living Room Candidate compiles all the presidential campaign commercials from 1952–2012. Your kids might get a kick out of watching the older ads, and you can help them think critically about political messages by comparing the commercials and how successful they are.
Schools and families both have important roles to play in helping children develop into responsible citizens. It is a challenging and exciting year for our country, for educators, and for parents. Let’s make the most of this important moment and do our best to engage children in meaningful, age-appropriate conversations that maintain their optimism and model reflective thinking and action.