Adolescents

Talking to Your Kids about Politics

As the election nears, children may be exposed to the escalating political climate. Many parents have asked me what to say to their children about the current intense political scene.

Putting politics into terms children can understand goes a long way toward helping them understand the democratic process and take a healthy interest in what’s happening. A simple example can convey a lot.

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Every year when my cousin (also a Dr. Nightingale) and I were kids, we went to summer camp together. We were born two months apart and were even delivered in the same hospital. We grew up close and competitive.

At Pine Springs Ranch, each cabin of campers got to choose what merit badge they wanted to earn for the week. The badge was earned by the whole cabin participating in a daily activity and concluded with each of us getting an embroidered patch. Which patch we worked for was decided democratically, we all voted on it.

My cousin was an avid equestrian and loved riding. I loved swimming and the freedom of the water. At the beginning of each week, inside our beige-pink cabin “Chippewa,” we’d gather the girls around the wooden bunks.

“It’s going to be really hot this week,” I’d say. “I’m so glad we can go swimming.”

“The horse stables are closer than the pool,” My cousin would chime in.

The wide eyed, homesick girls watched us up on our two top bunks. We’d called dibs on them by unrolling our green sleeping bags out before any of the other girls arrived. We both sat crossed legged in matching culottes and pretend to search through the stashes of candy we’d each brought. Daddy Longleg spiders tiptoed up the walls. A lizard tail from some lucky reptile would be wedged between the slats on the wood floor.

“We’ll have to groom and brush horses,” I’d groan. “so we won’t get to ride much, bor-ing.”

“At least we wouldn’t have to hike to the other end of camp before we had any fun,” she’d retort. “And there’s something to do while you’re waiting your turn.”

I’d unwrap a Root Beer Barrel and she’d open an Abba-Zaba bar. And then we’d call for a vote. One of us usually called for a revote after the candy was distributed.

Some weeks we went swimming and some weeks we rode horses and did barrel racing. Summer camp was always fun, and even if one of us didn’t get our first choice at the merit badge activity, there were many other adventurous things to do each day.

We are so fortunate to live in a country where we get to not only vote but we have freedom of speech and the press to discuss and share our different ideas. This is a precious privilege that much of the world doesn’t get to enjoy. Share a story with your child about competition, values, wishes and a fair vote that may or may not lead to what each individual wanted.

Talk to your children about the history of democracy  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_democracy   and how a democracy is different from a monarchy, oligarchy, or theocracy, how communism differs from socialism, and what the constitution says about protecting our freedom. Help your child feel proud to live in a democracy, not to be afraid of their future and differing perspectives.

It is great to care about who the leaders of your country are. It’s patriotic to participate in campaigns and fund raising. Just be aware that when parents have strong opinions, what kids hear and how they interpret what they hear, may not be what parents expect. The most important ways children learn are by watching what’s modeled by those around them. Sometimes parents aren’t demonstrating exactly what they think they are.

When a child sees expressions of anger in the adults around them, they interpret these actions to mean there’s something to be afraid of. Anger and rage are always secondary emotions to fear. We exhibit anger when we don’t feel safe. Anger is protective. We only need protection when there is danger. A parent can help a child understand this by asking about times at school, or at sporting events with friends, when another child looked angry when they were really afraid. (Such as yelling and stomping off the field when they were afraid of being embarrassed, being benched or losing their position.)

When discussing ideals and values with your child try to explain what you are going toward rather than what you want to avoid. Children will be less afraid of statements like, “I want us to take care of our soldiers, they fight so bravely for our county,” rather than a fear-based statement like, “I want us to be able to fight off enemies that might attack us.”

Children see adults as strong and calm when the grown-ups talk about perusing positive dreams. Adults who rail against danger look scary and anxious. For instance, “I don’t want any women-hating politicians blocking women’s right to health care,” sounds scary. “I will always vote for women to have complete heath care for all their needs,” sounds strong. Talk about your beliefs by saying what you do want, not by talking about what you are afraid of and don’t want.

When a child asks you if something a candidate or announcer says is true, it is a great opportunity to teach them how to check out things for themselves and not just accept repeated statements as necessarily true. (Learning to question things for themselves, may one day keep your teenager safe from the whims of an impulsive peer.) Objective research sites such as Snopes.com, Politifact.com, FactCheck.org, washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker.com, TruthOrFiction.com are easy to search, and besides confirming or disproving statements, you can find the sources of facts or hoaxes as well.  Teach your child to be curious and to be willing to do the work of investigation, rather than just accepting what he/she is told.

Take advantage of your children’s curiosity and teach them skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Demonstrate courage, integrity, gratitude and tolerance for differences. We are blessed to be Americans.