5 Steps for Talking with Children About Politics
By Elizabeth McDade-Montez, PhD | June 1, 2017
Senior Research Associate, ETR
We joined the march. Along with millions of others across the globe, my young daughters and I marched for women’s rights on January 21, 2017. It was exhilarating and empowering! It was also sometimes challenging. I found myself having to explain some difficult topics to my girls.
Until the march, I hadn’t talked with either of my daughters about the leaked Access Hollywood video—the video that inspired many marchers to dress like cats, wear creative hats and carry lively, bold and funny protest signs. There we stood on the sidewalk downtown, with my 8-year old daughter asking me, “What does that sign mean? What does this one mean? Why are so many people wearing the same hat?”
As a parent, I’ve had many conversations about politics with my children, especially since the 2016 presidential election. I’ve often wondered about the most appropriate and helpful ways to talk about today’s political climate. I’ve done a bit of research, looking for science-based approaches to talking with young children about difficult topics. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Children vary in how much they are aware of and concerned by today’s political climate. However, children can be more concerned than they let on, so it’s important to listen to both verbal and nonverbal cues. Here are some common topics in the media these days that could be stressful to many children.
- Policies on immigration. Youth from immigrant families may feel particularly frightened by recent political actions as well as cultural reactions. Classmates and peers may be affected by their friends’ distress and feel concern for their safety.
- The use of uncivil language in politics. We hear language and terms that are blunt and even crude at times—words many parents choose not to use around their children.
- Examples of uncivil behavior in politics and protests. Behavior many of us would chastise our children for has been analyzed endlessly and sometimes affirmed within the political landscape.
- More frequent political events. Children are seeing more political marches for women, science, climate and political perspectives on all sides. They wonder why these are occurring now.
- Your own feelings about today’s politics. Children may hear things in mainstream or social media that go against the political beliefs and values of their parents. They may sense a parent’s frustration or disappointment about political matters.
5 Steps: What Can We Do?
No matter your political leanings, there are ways to talk about politics that support our children’s healthy emotional development. Research on how to talk to children about political events specifically is limited. But the principles of helping children cope with stressful or traumatic events, along with general strategies for supporting positive emotional development, can be applied to political conversations.
- First, we listen. Children often have their own ideas about current events. They may have heard things from friends, friends’ families or at school. Ask children to share what they know, and be sure to hear them out before jumping in. This will help you identify any misconceptions or misunderstandings they might have about the topic. It also gives you a chance to identify any sources of stress or worry.
- Second, we explain. Explain as clearly and directly as possible what is known about the topic. Focus on facts. Don't worry if you aren’t absolutely sure of these. This could be a learning opportunity to better understand something that is important to both of you.
- Third, we ask. After you’ve explained what is happening, ask children if they have any questions. Some children will benefit from more details. Others may not be interested in more. You’re looking for the balance between answering what they want to know and not giving them more than they are ready to handle.
- Fourth, we reassure. If children are concerned or upset about a political event or controversy, let them know what is being done to keep them and others safe. Talk to them about how our political system works. Describe the importance of involvement from citizens just like you and them. Help them write postcards or letters to representatives that express their feelings, or make a sign together for the window or yard. Offer other action steps that give them a constructive sense of empowerment.
You can also talk to children about how to be advocates for things they believe in (for ideas, see my colleague John Henry Ledwith’s post about how his parents made an advocate out of him when he was a child, or this Edutopia post about teaching advocacy in the classroom).
- Fifth, we share opinions if appropriate. Finally, calmly share and explain your values and opinions if you are in a position to do so. This may not be an option for teachers, counselors or other professionals working with children. For parents, this is an ideal time to describe some of the issues about family, community and country that are most important to you.
“Calmly” is a key concept here. You might have very strong feelings about certain political events. Save your intense emotions for a night out with like-minded grown-ups.
So, to reiterate five steps for handling tricky political topics with children:
- Listen to the child.
- Explain clearly and plainly.
- Listen again.
- Reassure the child.
- Calmly share your opinion and values, if appropriate.
Hopefully these steps will help you in any upcoming discussions around politics. If you’ve already had some interesting talks with children about politics, please share in the comments!
More on Talking About Politics With Children
Elizabeth McDade-Montez, PhD is a Senior Research Associate at ETR who has studied the influence of media on children and adolescents. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.