Talking to kids about the Inauguration

It's not a conversation most parents thought they'd have to have. Here's why this year is different.

News of the upcoming presidential Inauguration excites the Frayer family of metro Detroit. They welcome the new administration and are thrilled that it marks the first time that a woman—and a woman of color—will serve as vice president of the United States.

Rob and Jennifer Frayer have shared their joy with their seven-year-old daughter, Emerson. But they don’t plan to let her watch the historic Inauguration with them, even though—like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris—their daughter is part Asian. Instead, assuming all goes well, they’ll watch repeats of it together later, when they can control what she sees.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about the Inauguration after the January 6 attack on the Capitol that led to the deaths of five people, says DePaul University associate professor Alyssa Westring, co-author of Parents Who Lead. News reports of plots to cause more violent disturbances as the Inauguration draws near adds to concern.

“The idea that it’s going to automatically be a safe and peaceful transition of power is something we can no longer take for granted,” says Westring, who has two children, ages 9 and 11. “That’s reason to be scared, even as adults.”

But parents can still take steps to make sure that children understand the importance of this Inauguration and why it matters—despite the anxiety it might be causing. Here’s what experts advise.

Talk with your children.

Westring and other experts advise discussing the Inauguration and the events surrounding it—children will hear about what’s going on whether you talk about it or not.

“I think it's impossible for kids to have missed all of the controversy,” says developmental psychologist Christia Spears Brown, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied children and politics. But it’s important to talk about it in age-appropriate ways.

For example, Jennifer Frayer kept conversations as simple as possible. “We’ve told her that some bad things happened because there are some people who don’t like that Biden won and they’re trying to prevent him from taking office,” she says. “We talk to her, but we don’t let her see those horrible images on TV.”

Westring recommends asking children what they’ve heard, whether it’s about the events at the Capitol or the upcoming Inauguration. Help clear up anything that they don’t understand or may have misunderstood.

“You want to create an open space for conversation,” she says. “So you might just start with something like, ‘The Inauguration is coming up. Do you know what that is? What have you heard about it? What are you curious about? Do you have any questions about it?’ Give them space to talk.”

Then follow your child’s cues on how much they want to talk. “As parents we kind of know our kids,” Westring says. “Some need to be encouraged more to talk, and others who say “Everything is OK,’ that’s what they mean.’’

Spears Brown, who has two children, ages 16 and 10, also advises paying attention to body language, which will tell you things when their words won’t.

“Kids are not good at expressing their emotions, and telling you explicitly, ‘This is making me worried,’” she says. Unusual fidgeting or other behaviors that aren’t normal could signal that a child needs to talk.

Starting the conversations can help parents control the messaging. For instance, the evening of the Capitol insurrection, Westring and her husband decided to talk with their children about the events, knowing they’d be discussing it in virtual school the next morning.

“I wanted to give them a chance to talk and ask questions and get information in a way I can control before they talked about it in school,” she says. “I didn’t want them to be scared, and I wanted them to trust me and my husband to share important information with them.”

Or, just take advice from Westring’s 11-year-old son: “Parents should tell their kids enough so they’re not surprised, but not so much so that they get scared.”

Talk about family values.

Talking about the Inauguration and the candidates is also a time to reinforce family values, even if things go awry, experts say.

“You can say, ‘How do we act when we disagree with someone or something? In our family, we believe in following rules,’” Westring says.

Depending on the child’s age and level of understanding, those discussions can take on even more weight. For example, you can talk about anti-Semitism and racism, taking care to talk in ways that inform and share your views without necessarily disparaging people who don’t share those views.

“We talk a lot about kindness, fairness, empathy, compassion, and acceptance of all people. Those things are important to us,” says Frayer, who’s Korean American and married to a Caucasian man. “I try to push that it’s OK to have different viewpoints. But we vote with people who care more about the things we care about.”

Help children become media savvy.

The Inauguration might continue to raise false allegations that Biden did not win the presidential election. That’s why both Westring and Spears Brown agree that it’s especially important to help children become media literate and critical thinkers.

“Get in the habit of going to the internet together, checking the source of questionable information, and comparing what credible sources are saying,” Spears Brown says.

For example, if they hear that Joe Biden didn’t win the election, “You can say, ‘Well, what would be a good source for us to go look that up together?’” she says. In this case, families might go to the website of a secretary of state to see what that state’s election results showed.

She also advised helping children distinguish between biased reporting and reputable journalism. (Here’s an article on helping children become media literate.)

Model good behavior—and give yourself a break.

Children know when their parents are anxious and upset. So find positive ways to calm yourself and reduce your own anxiety to keep it from spilling over to your children, Westring says. Lead by example.

When you don’t have answers, say so. But add: “Let’s find out together, or let me think about that and get back to you.” (Just be sure to get back to them!)

“Give yourself a little grace,” Westring says. “Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers, because, how could we?”

Make it a teachable moment.

Despite all the anxiety over the Inauguration, don’t forget that the Inauguration can still offer a real-time opportunity to teach children history and civics lessons. For example, leading up the event, families can watch past Inaugurations together, as well as read books or other material that helps them understand the Inaugural process. Local libraries and government offices can be good resources as well.

Use language children can relate to. For example, when explaining that the president and vice president will take an oath, Frayer explained to Emerson that an oath is like a promise, like “when Mommy and Daddy married they promised to take care of each other.” In a way, she explained, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are promising that they’ll help care for the country.

Reassure. Reassure. Reassure.

“Children need our reassurance now more than ever,” Spears Brown says. “They need our reassurance more than our deep-seated worries.”

Start by monitoring what your children view on television, the internet, and other media. “Kids can't necessarily recognize where [an event] is happening versus where they are,” Spears Brown says. “It's not shielding them from the violence, but it is recognizing that it is really scary.”

Then, continue to reassure your children. “Tell them, ‘Yes, it’s scary, but there are a lot of people working really hard to make sure the Inauguration happens safely.”

And tell them that no matter what happens, you as their parent or caregiver and others who love them will do everything possible to keep them safe. Says Spears Brown: “Our job is to help kids know that no matter what, they’re not alone.”

More for your family

Inspiring kids to change the world

Talking to kids about race

How to talk to your kids about the chaos at the Capitol