Recently, a parent in an online group asked how to explain to her children why most of their friends’ parents don’t vote the same way they do. We went back and forth a bit with ideas, and I wondered how others were handling a rather divisive election cycle with their young as well as how others manage the potential minefield of politics with their kids. How do you discuss these topics at home?
Political and election talk are common in our home. My younger son, 11, is highly attuned to the election process, asking questions, listening to the radio, and watching the debates. (He’s actually more attuned than his mother, who knows that informed people watch debates but who really can’t stand the interpersonal dynamics and showmanship that debaters display. But that’s another issue.)
His awareness of the candidates, his parents’ voting preferences, and, to a lesser extent, the issues at hand started during the last election cycle. At seven, he was largely echoing what his parents said. At eleven, he shares plenty of his own thoughts. Yes, his values and politics are still similar to mine, but he’s coming into more ownership of those values and beliefs and deepening his understanding of the issues at hand. As a child who seems to have little filter between mind and mouth, this level of interest can be a social hazard. While many of the families close to us share his political views, others don’t. For years, most of my energy regarding a political education for him revolved around, “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” Don’t ask others for whom they’ll vote, and don’t broadcast yours to every listening ear (or just let your lawn sign do that second part).
After some consideration and absolutely no training, I’ve come up with some hints for dealing with politics and children. They aren’t well researched but they have worked for me both in educating my kids about politics while impressing some rules of engagement when discussing the topic with others.
Model respectful discourse and practice right speech. We work hard to teach our children respectful language. Before they know what the words mean, we teach them “please” and “thank you.” It’s all too easy to forget respectful speech when politics come into the conversation. I find the Buddhist practice of right speech to be instrumental in promoting respectful dialogue. Right speech is a Buddhist practice of refraining from lies, divisive speech, harsh speech (meant to harm), and useless speech. It’s not easy, thus why it’s called a practice and not a simple trick.
Yes, the other side is terribly misguided, poorly informed, and ethically depraved. They’re thinking the same of your side. Politics can be discussed among those who disagree, but the results are always ugly if right speech isn’t practiced. I’ve tried it in some sticky political situations with decent results, meaning at least I’ve left the conversation knowing I did no harm. Rarely will you change a mind, but perhaps every now and then a respectfully spoken sentiment will cause a person to think a bit more. Anger doesn’t ever yield that small response. Pay special attention to the last tenet — useless speech. Most of the conversations online about politics are useless at best and are often toxic to all involved. If you choose to engage, be kind. Even when those smaller ears and eyes don’t seem to be paying attention, they are, and our actions speak volumes about what is acceptable, just behavior.
Watching campaign ads and debates won’t give your young one models of right speech, but discussing those patterns and modeling a better way to talk about hard issues will. During the debates, we’ve talked about the interrupting the candidates do to each other and to the moderator and discuss the digs they make at each other. Unfortunately, some of that behavior is part of the debate game. It’s worth discussing whether those actions are really desirable and respectful. Developing right speech is a lifetime endeavor, but there are never more times to practice it than in an election year.
Model good research skills. Election season is a fine time to teach fact checking and research. It’s tempting to assume that whatever one’s favored candidate says is true, but facts get progressively more slippery as the stakes get higher. While watching the second debate on YouTube, my younger and I stopped a few times to see what the fact checkers had to say about the veracity of the candidates’ statements. The better fact checking sites provide links to more information, allowing for more research. This process also allows for discussions about the use of statistics when trying to make a point. Be fair. There are plenty of examples on both sides of poor use of numbers as well as sloppy use of facts.
Pay attention to the news. Pick carefully, and try to pick sources with minimal bias. We’re an NPR family (and the studies still show they aren’t biased in either direction), and that leaves plenty of fodder for discussions. When you read or hear something that seems biased, talk about that. Look for another source. Even spend time looking at sources from both sides. It’s smart to know what the other side thinks, and reading the blogs and online news sources from the opposite party can actually increase one’s understanding of what others are thinking and why. It may not change your mind, but if you read and listen with an open mind, you’ll likely have a bit of appreciation for the source of the difference of opinion.
Critique your favored candidate. Neither of these guys walk on water. Both make mistakes. Both play lose with the facts and manipulate words and numbers to gain votes. If your support to your candidate hinges on denying this fact, then this process could result in a bit more angst as election day draws near. Good. Children excel at black-and-white thinking. So do adults in an election year. Find the good in the candidate you don’t want and the not-so-good in the candidate you do like. Neither is evil. Neither is divine. They are both merely mortal men, even the one you like better.
And as far as the original question of how to explain how one’s friends can vote differently than one’s own family votes? For that I rely on a single line: different families make different choices. It works for everything from bedtimes, TV rules, dinner choices, outdoor decorations, gifts at the holidays, and even religion and politics.
However your family’s politics lean, the most important civics lesson you can teach your child this season is the importance of voting. Take them with you, regardless of the lines at the polls. Wear your “I voted” sticker with pride. Watch the returns together. Then, regardless of the results, continue to talk about politics and government with respect and a mind ever searching more knowledge and truth.