It is stating the obvious that the 2020 elections are upon us and dominating the news during unprecedented, contentious, and stressful times. As a school, we will observe, teach about, and process the elections – before and after – with an attention to developmental-appropriateness and the importance of discourse, respect for differences and different people and different points of view, truth, equality, honesty, stewardship, equity and justice, building community, peace, an ability to recognize bias, and more. These principles stem from our values as a Friends school and, in my opinion, are fundamental to our aspirations as a democratic society and nation.
As shared in the Friends Journal, Quakers do not have a party affinity as a religion. “We welcome people with all sorts of political beliefs – Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, socialists, Libertarians and Independents – to the Religious Society of Friends. The Religious Society of Friends is a religious organization, not a political one, though many Quakers join together in common political pursuits. Nor is the Society of Friends affiliated with any political party or position. Individual Quakers may and often do disagree with various political and foreign policy positions taken by Quaker-related organizations, and with individuals who express their views in various Friends publications. Many Friends are politically involved and active which we believe is the right and duty of all of us living in a democracy.” (John Spears and Norval Reece) I can also add that it is not the goal of BFS, just like any other school, to indoctrinate anyone into believing a specific political platform.
All said, school-age children, especially our upper school students, are at a time in their lives framed by, among other things, individuation, agency, and making sense of the/their world. They are expressing their individual ideas and/or beginning to wrestle with the ideas of others, and they bring this all to bear at home as well as at school. Continuing to talk with them about your values and beliefs as parents is important, and beginning to witness and listen to what they are trying to sort out and understand about their world and themselves is essential, requiring attention and effort for sure.
Children are aware of a great deal right now – the pandemic, political change, climate change, a renewed racial reckoning in America, the economy, instability around the world, and more. Children, regardless of age, find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming, and we at BFS recognize that we, too, are providing a haven for children. Consider not exposing young children to much of what is on television and radio at this time, and remember that they pick up on attitudes and feelings of their parents and to sort out your own feelings with other adults first. As our own thoughts and feelings come forward, remember to clarify what the children are asking and to answer their questions. Try to resist sharing your own reactions if the question is more concrete. Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.
The Right Way to Talk About Politics With Your Kids, According to Experts (Keep it civil – even if the candidates can’t.) By GAIL CORNWALL
Aug 24, 2020
Especially when political matters feel raw and lack civility, a parent’s initial reflex can be to shield their children from the discourse around the election. But the experts say we ought to do otherwise, encouraging an exchange of age-appropriate information and ideas about political institutions, politicians, and policy stances.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the company Care.com, nearly 90% of parents who didn’t discuss politics with their kids said it was because they were too young to understand. But Judith Myers-Walls, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of child development at Purdue University, says the first stage of “they just don’t get it” doesn’t last long: “Children as young as 3 have some understanding,” she says.
Preschoolers may have a vague sense that a political world exists and is split into two groups, since this is right around the age children develop a sense of “us” and “them,” explains Jill S. Greenlee, Ph.D., associate professor of Politics and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. And their intense focus on fairness opens the door to rudimentary discussions of justice, according to Erin Pahlke, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College.
As they reach school age, children understand concrete political details but abstract concepts still tend to elude them. In the last election, for example, the issue kids talked about most was immigration, because a border wall is a very tangible thing. But their thinking tends to be black and white, says Meagan Patterson, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas, which — when combined with their information source being snippets of overheard conversations — produces fearful misunderstandings.
“There is a fair amount of individual variability in terms of what kids know,” Dr. Patterson says, with researchers encountering “an 8-year-old who doesn’t know who the presidential candidates are, and an 8-year-old who can explain the electoral college.” And the rate at which a child moves from a limited, stark political understanding to wrapping their heads around nuanced, conceptual issues depends on the scaffolding they get from adults.
So no matter what age your child is, you can talk to them about political issues in language they’ll understand. But first, there are ground rules. Experts say to follow these do’s and don’ts when talking politics around kids.
Don’t just think about the federal level.
If national issues feel too fraught or removed, state and local debates can provide a good way to talk about how democracy works, Dr. Greenlee says. Both Vote! by Eileen Christelow and Duck for President by Doreen Cronin at least touch on an explanation of the various levels of government.
Differentiate between people and offices.
By fourth grade, Dr. Greenlee’s research shows, children can distinguish between the presidency and the president. (If I Were President by Catherine Stier nails that topic.) As they grow, it’s important to be explicit, telling our kids that even if we don’t like a specific elected official, we can still value the institution and have trust in it.
Don’t let your disillusionment dampen their interest or freak them out.
Bring up the idea of checks and balances. “Children should know that adults have got this,” says Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “It’s like paying the rent.”
We might be scared, but we shouldn’t let them in on it if we can help it. Say things like, “Our democracy is pretty strong, and it’s set up so that lots of people are involved in making decisions.”
It’s tempting to be melodramatic, Dr. Patterson says, but we should avoid theatrics if we can. “If you’re talking to your spouse about, ‘Oh, if this person wins the election we’re moving to Canada,’ realize that your kid in the next room may think you’re really moving, and they have to leave all their friends behind,” she says. Guidance from the American Psychological Association (APA) says allowing kids to witness the full brunt of your political anxiety or anger can be destabilizing.
Teach them not to believe everything they hear.
Offering reassurance and optimism doesn’t mean creating chumps, though. Children need to know they can’t take everything they hear about politics at face value. Talk about elections in general: Are they popularity contests? Are they about ideas? A little of both? What role do race and gender play? Introduce kids to political cartoons, the role of social media, and the impact of polls on campaign momentum.
When you see a political advertisement, ask what the creators are trying to make people think or do. Who paid for it? What emotions are they using to try to get you to do what they want you to do? Tell kids that fear-mongering and heartstring-pulling are both tried-and-true election strategies. That’s not just the case for ads but for candidates’ speeches, too. When kids watch an interview or debate with you, point out when a candidate doesn’t answer the question, circling back to talking points instead. Explain how politicians use scarecrows to distract attention from important issues and dog-whistling to rally their base. (Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty for President has the best faux negative campaign ad I’ve seen to date.)
Don’t allow them to confuse passion and vitriol.
Nasty. Deplorable. Snowflake.
It’s important to support the principle of free speech, but “when kids see public discourse that is disrespectful in tone, they learn that we adults are not actually serious when we tell them that they should be kind and respectful,” Dr. Markham says. Just because it’s constitutional or comes from an understandable emotion, it doesn’t mean it’s okay. And it’s no more okay for famous people than for us, or for one political party than the other. In her advice column for the Washington Post, Meaghan Leahy recommends finding great politicians and showing kids clips of their communication style to provide an alternative model.
For younger kids, “Talk about good and bad ideas, not good and bad people,” Dr. Greenlee says, making it clear that a difference of opinion doesn’t necessitate demonizing someone. Children also need to be explicitly told, Dr. Myers-Walls says, that in most cases holding a different viewpoint or belonging to a different group doesn’t make you enemies, and that relationships can change over time. (Try pointing to a cross-rivalry friendship in sport, like the one between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.)
Negative partisanship — where your preference is less about what your own group stands for and more about your distaste for the other group — is something kids can be taught to avoid. The very best way to do that, regardless of your child’s age, is modeling. Check your own snide comments and eyerolls. When you encounter name-calling in the political realm, call it out. Say aloud: “Why would anyone think that sign will convince people to reconsider their perspective?”
Lead with questions.
What are other kids saying about the election? What have you heard adults saying? Do you have any questions? What do you think?
These are the sort of open-ended questions the experts recommend using to initiate a dialogue. Asking them, Dr. Myers-Walls says, teaches kids that politics isn’t a dirty subject that has to be all tension and eggshells. Start by letting your child guide the conversation, but it’s okay to switch to information-sharing mode once a comfortable back-and-forth has been established.
Don’t shove your views down their throats.
Pretty much all parents want to transmit a value system to their children. For some, the idea of their kid switching from blue to red, or vice versa, is unacceptable. Others seek to encourage political literacy, equipping their children to make considered, rational choices from a place of integrity, regardless of whether they adopt our specific political beliefs. (For example, I can say it’s important to me that my kids value equity, and at the same time accept that they might develop a different opinion on, say, whether caretakers receiving a basic income would be good for society.)
Luckily, the experts recommend the same strategies for all of us. When you talk about issues, try to get inside the heads of folks on both sides, and be fair in acknowledging what each perspective has going for it. Support “rigorous debate at school,” both in the classroom and under the auspices of the National Speech and Debate Association, says Michael McDevitt, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Don’t be afraid to explain why you believe what you believe. If kids take a stance that makes you uncomfortable, offer to look up relevant information together.
And if you do want your kids to adopt the same partisan identification, Dr. Greenlee says, know that it’s already pretty likely. Children’s attitudes tend to reflect the voting patterns of not only their parents but also of the counties they live in. It’s even more likely when parents’ views are stable, they agree with one another, and they talk about politics frequently at home. If that first part doesn’t describe your situation, remember that the “talk about it” bit still applies: “A silent home is worse than a house divided,” McDevitt says.
Provide specific language for tough situations they’ll encounter with their friends.
Whether hard conversations are happening in playground or at school, it’s important to empower your kids to handle them. At school, Dr. Markham suggests using: “It’s okay for people to have different opinions about things. You’re my friend and that’s what matters most to me.” Another tack: “I wonder what our parents would say about this? Do you think they could help us find the facts together?” Guidance from the APA says if all else fails, we should make sure children know they can walk away from uncomfortable situations.
Don’t make kids wait for 18 to participate democratically.
Very young kids can begin learning about the democratic process in the home. If it’s all the same to you, why not let them vote on where the family eats out, or what movie to watch for family movie night?
Dr. Myers-Walls says kids “often get pretty passionate about causes and want to make a difference for things around them.” Remind them that they aren’t powerless. Most schools have some sort of student council kids can get involved in, like Grace does in Grace for President. Books such as Follow the Moon Home tell stories of successful youth activism. And kids can always encourage adults to vote (one does just that in Vote!).
By imparting knowledge about the way government and voting work, as well as the ability to think critically and discuss what kids see and hear, parents can take steps toward what most of us want: to produce a citizen capable of fully exercising their democratic rights.
Books and Games to Spark Political Interest
- Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio
- Vote! by Eileen Christelow
- Duck for President by Doreen Cronin
- When You Grow Up To Vote by Eleanor Roosevelt
- The Next President by Kate Messner
- If I Were President by Catherine Stier
- Grace Goes to Washington by Kelly S. DiPucchio
- Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel
- A Kids Book About Voting by Next Up
- One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote by Bonnie Worth
- Election Night! board game
- Monopoly: House Divided
GAIL CORNWALL Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom and writes about parenthood.