Every four years political dialogue—in homes, in schools, in public places—across this country reaches an excited pitch. Thanks to the fact that kids have access to more information through television, computers, cell phones, video games, the Internet, etc., they are exposed to more of this dialogue than ever before. Although the media are ubiquitous, they are not the only source of information for kids. More often than not, parents express their own political opinions in casual conversation—over dinner, in the car, on the telephone—and children are inevitably going to pick up on these opinions and be influenced by them more than by any news report. As naturally inquisitive beings, they are going to ask questions.
In an election year, the fact that people don't always agree with one another becomes more pronounced than usual. Therefore, it is important to talk to your children about politics in an inclusive manner, so that they are better equipped to understand something that is usually considered an adult subject, and to understand differences among people.
The most important thing to remember is that the way to talk to kids about politics is the same way you talk to them about any other subject: with understanding, patience and encouragement to ask questions. The degree to which your child will ask questions depends on how open communication in the family already is. When you are watching the news together, let kids know that it is okay for them to ask and have issues clarified.
Of course, the age and temperament of the child will determine the types of questions asked. Because children process information in different ways as they get older, the same questions may resurface. As kids rethink things as they get older, they may require more information and explanation.
The following are guidelines as to what kinds of questions kids are likely to ask, according to different stages of development.
Children Under Five
Children in this age group are concrete thinkers. They do not always differentiate between what is real and what is fantasy. A concrete thinker watching television—with its quick edits, talking heads and vivid imagery—is especially susceptible to being confused or scared by political discussions. During the coverage of 9/11, for instance, when the news stations kept showing the disaster over and over, some young kids thought it was happening all over again. A good rule of thumb with this age group is not to tell them more than they want to know. Answer their concrete questions with short concrete answers. For example, to a question such as "Who is that woman on TV? Why are we watching her?", one might respond, "She is a politician. That means she is trying to help run our country in the way that she believes is best for people."
Children Aged Six to Nine
Kids in this age group have a better understanding of cause and effect, but they tend to think in black and white. Thanks to their peers and other influences outside the home, their black-and-white thinking gives them a strong sense of right and wrong—especially the sense that those who do wrong deserve punishment. Children at this age will have difficulty understanding that other people may have opinions that are different than theirs. For these children, it's okay to explain that everyone has a right to express their opinion, but don't belabor it. It is also important to show tolerance for people who disagree, because kids at this age have a tendency to be suspicious of people with whom they are not familiar.
Children in this age group will start to make the connection between government and safety. It is key to let children know that many layers exist to protect that safety. Stretching from home through the parents, school, teachers, policemen all the way up to government there are many layers of safety in place. The purpose of "government" is to insure that safety. Understanding the purpose of government can help them understand the importance of voting and elections. Classroom elections may help to underscore this concept in relation to children's everyday lives.
This age range is when you might hear the question: Is so-and-so a "bad" person because she believes in this thing that you don't? This is the opportunity to say "Let's talk about it," and to open a discussion about what makes a person bad and why.
Ten-to-Twelve Year Olds
The reasoning and reactions of these children are more complicated because they are able to comprehend nuances better. They are more sophisticated and have one foot in the adult world and one foot in childhood. Parents should take their cues from the child: Every child at this age is aware that we've been at war and it's an election year. They are probably going to have an opinion. In school, most children experience elections first hand when they vote and campaign in class and school elections.
The questions they might ask are sometimes a request for information and sometimes this request masks or conceals a concern, such as possible separation from parents, loss of parents' jobs, or the safety of a friend or relative in the military.
Teenagers are apt to have strong opinions and expect to be heard. As they try to establish their own identity and view of the world, peers exert a strong influence, and discussions may become heated. Teenagers may feel more and more concerned about abstract questions, such as the roles of the three branches of government, the party system, the meaning of war, and their own personal involvement (either for or against certain candidates). For 18-year-olds about to vote for the first time, parents should encourage ongoing discussions about the candidates' opinions on important issues in order to help them make informed choices.
For those teenagers who want to feel involved, it helps if they are part of a group, if they write letters, participate in campaigns and let their voices be heard. The payoff at this point for having previously established an open relationship with your kids is that it makes them less likely to engage in risky behavior and more likely to be interested and engaged with the world.
Adolescence is also the age of rebellion. So what do you do when your teenager takes a position and maybe action that is diametrically opposed to your position politically?
Open discussion is extremely important. Do your best to separate personal opinion from fact and encourage your child to do the same. Have her gather as many facts supporting her position as possible. Emphasize the concept that narrow ideas do not define a position. It is possible that she may have misinformation and as a parent, you can help her learn to separate opinion and facts and that "there's more than one side to every story." Of course, you might also be misinformed, so be prepared, keep an open mind and let her know you respect her point of view. Teens are on the brink of adulthood. The best you can do is to answer your kid's questions honestly and squarely. Even teens are looking for security when they come looking for answers.
By responding to questions and concerns regarding the political process in a truthful and respectful manner, parents and school personnel help develop children's personal self-confidence, problem-solving abilities, and knowledge, all basic factors in making sound community decisions and becoming responsible citizens in a democratic society.
Date Published: October 12, 2004
Updated: November 2012