In 2016, Mark Brown, Jr.’s, elementary school held a mock presidential election. The then-six-year-old was elated when the candidate he supported won. But a few weeks later, his candidate lost in the real election. He was devastated, hurt, and confused. How could the person who in his mind was the best person for the job—the person who his school overwhelmingly voted for—lose?
Mark’s mother, Rikesha Fry Brown, soothed his hurt in language he understood: sports.
“I told him that just because you vote doesn’t mean things will go your way—just like when you play ball,” says Fry Brown, dean of the Honors College at Hampton University. “Just because you do your best doesn’t mean you win. But you still have to show up and do your best anyway. And next time you go to bat for your candidate again.”
Elections can be fraught with tension and can bring up confusing questions from children. But the 2020 presidential election seems especially contentious, exposing intense emotions and questionable behavior that children might have trouble understanding. Add to that anxiety from the pandemic and a nation in the grips of a racial reckoning, and this election season can be particularly difficult for parents to navigate.
“This is a really scary time for children. There’s a lot of change and fear and things moving away from what the whole normal used to be like,” says Alyssa Westring, co-author of Parents Who Lead. “So it’s our job to help them manage their fear and anxiety in ways that we might not have had to do before.”
The best approach? Talk to your children, even when it feels difficult.
“[Talking] helps them understand themselves as a community member and can help facilitate their sense of responsibility to other people in their community,” says Deborah Rivas-Drake, a University of Michigan educator who’s co-author of an ongoing study of civil engagement in a predominantly Latinx community. “You’re planting seeds that will bear fruit later in terms of their understanding of themselves as civic and political actors who have agency.”
Raising civic-minded children is also vital to the nation’s future. “We have to do better at raising children to be civic-minded and informed so that they can make thoughtful political decisions in the future,” says developmental psychologist Christia Spears Brown of the University of Kentucky, whose children are 16 and 10. “Life as we know it, for better or worse, is shaped by the decisions of our government, and we need engaged and informed citizens to create that government.”
It’s not like kids aren’t paying attention anyway.
“Kids are really attuned to what’s going on,” says Spears Brown, who co-authored a 2019 study about kids and politics. Sometimes their knowledge is flawed or skewed, which is exactly why it’s important for parents to talk with their children. Here’s how to get those conversations started.
What to talk about
You can’t shelter your children from the political world they live in, says Westring, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Business and mother of an 8- and 11-year-old.
“Kids are going to hear about it,” she says. “They’re going to be talking about it in school; they’re going to be talking about it with friends; they’re going to be hearing things from the news or from the internet.” And, of course, they’re overhearing your conversations.
So what do parents say?
Enid Rosario-Ramos, a University of Michigan educator who co-authored the study with Rivas-Drake, advises that parents discuss politics with children—even preschoolers—in language they understand.
For example, most kids won’t understand a phrase like “distributing scarce resources.” But Rosario-Ramos says they do understand the concepts of sharing and fairness. Parents can also compare laws with rules kids have to follow at home. “Children often have to follow rules,” Rosario-Ramos says. “They have emerging understanding of the role that rules play in making sure that everyone stays safe and healthy.”
Even if children don’t bring up the election, parents should check in with age-appropriate questions framed so kids can’t respond simply yes or no. For example: What have you heard? What questions do you have? What worries you?
“Initiate the conversation without it being a lecture,” Westring recommends. And if there’s something you don’t know or aren’t sure about, it’s OK to say so. But follow-up with, “Let’s find out,” says Rivas-Drake, the mother of nine-year-old twins.
Most importantly, she adds, be open to children expressing themselves and avoid shutting them down, especially if a subject is particularly emotional or upsetting for you. Acknowledge your feelings, but get back to your child when you can talk more calmly and rationally.
Look for teachable moments
Regardless of which candidate you’re supporting, most parents agree that politics often brings out bad behavior that they’d never want their children to emulate, or skews facts and issues in ways that can be confusing for kids (and adults). The key, say experts, is to use these situations as teachable moments.
Focus on issues—not people. Showing children that you’re voting on the issues, not just the person, helps them understand that elections are about what matters most to you, not, say, who you see on TV the most.
“Rather than calling [a candidate] a bad person or a dumb person, talk about what they care about, what their values are, and whether they’re the same as your values,” Westring says. “You could say, for example, ‘I really value protecting the environment and here’s a candidate that cares about protecting the environment in this way. What do you think about that? What do you care about? What would a good politician care about in your mind?’”
To help children understand this, caregivers can create age-appropriate scenarios at home that require debating and voting. “You could debate which is better—spaghetti or pizza—and practice learning the skills of arguing politely,” Westring says.
Respect differing viewpoints. Kids often think in all-or-nothing terms: “She’s the good one and he’s the bad guy,” for instance. Help them understand that multiple points of view are possible, and that not everybody thinks the way they do.
“I’ve heard my child say, ‘Everybody loves X candidate and everybody hates X candidate,’” says Rosario-Ramos, whose children are 4 and 6. “Even if I agree, I have to say, ‘No, there are people who like that candidate. What are some of the reasons they might like that candidate?’” That, she adds, is a critical thinking skill that will help children throughout life.
It’s also an opportunity to teach children that while you can disagree with someone, you should still respect their right to have their own opinion. “Elections are good opportunities to have those conversations with your kids about what your family values are,” Spears Brown says. “Just because people are different from you or think about things differently doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect and kindness.”
Argue fairly. Talking to children about political issues is also a way to teach your family’s values, such as being kind to others, no matter how disagreeable someone is. So when they see candidates engaging in inappropriate behavior, point it out.
For instance, if a child sees or hears something on TV or the radio, Westring suggests these conversation starters: “In this family, how do we speak to people? How do we speak about people? How do we communicate when we disagree?”
She adds: “Maybe even pointing out, ‘Oh, this person isn’t taking their turn listening; in our family it’s important that we do that.”
Parents should also help children distinguish between a person’s position and the person, Rosario-Ramos suggests. Tell children that just because someone is an adult or in a position of power doesn’t mean they don’t mess up, or say or do things your family disagrees with.
Figuring out the truth. At a time when candidates and media are constantly being accused of being untruthful, and when people are quick to believe whatever’s on their social media feed, it’s especially important to teach children not to believe everything they see and hear.
Teaching them to question information helps develop media-savvy, critical thinkers, Rosario-Ramos says. “For example, practice asking things like: ‘Who said or wrote that?’ ‘Why do you think they said or wrote that?’ ‘Whose views are represented? Whose views are missing?’ ‘Is there a different way of thinking about it?’”
Help kids look up information from different sources so they can understand how different people might say different things—then have them state for themselves what they think is true. Parents can also educate children on what “unbiased” means—a news story that doesn’t include the writer’s opinion and states facts from different sides of the issue—and steer children to those news sources to learn more about issues. (Here’s a kid-friendly list from Common Sense Media.)
A parent's responsibility
It’s one thing to help children deal with behavior they see on TV. But parents also need to be conscious and careful when expressing feelings about the election, Westring says.
“We can be really dramatic in our language, and that can be scary for kids,” she says. “Saying things like, “If this candidate wins, I’m going to shoot myself,” can be a scary thing for a kid to hear.”
Instead, use language that comforts your child. “Let them know that even if things are hard or don’t go your way, we’ll be OK,” Westring says. “Even if you don’t 100 percent believe that, it’s not going to help your kid to feel like this election is the defining thing that will keep them safe in their life. You are keeping them safe, no matter what.”
Managing your own stress will help children do the same. That can be something as simple as going for a walk together or turning off the screens and playing board games. For kids who still might be feeling anxious, empower them with age-appropriate activities to support candidates and issues they favor.
For instance, like-minded kids can create political posters on a virtual call. “It can be a way to connect with people who care about the things you care about,” Westring says.
Spears Brown says when it comes to kids and politics, the most important thing for parents to think about is who they want their children to become.
“You want to raise kids who are kind, empathetic, who can think for themselves, and can understand complexities,” she says. “Those are universal values. We need to help kids get there.”