Our kids are listening as negative political ads blare from our screens and radio waves.
They see the political rants swirling on social media. How we approach politics with our children is important not only in this heated election cycle, but also in shaping their understanding of civic engagement for years to come.
Children consume a wide range of media, including many of the ads, debates and commentaries associated with the elections. They are naturally curious about what’s going on around them.
“We want to encourage that curiosity,” said Jonathon Beckmeyer, a professor in the Indiana University School of Public Health. “The role of parents is to help guide those discussions and be a sounding board for what the kids are seeing or experiencing in their daily lives.”
The challenge is to adjust the approach to their developmental stage, Beckmeyer said. With young children, experts suggest focusing on the basics of our political system, the reason for elections and the goal of campaigns. As middle schoolers begin to associate issues discussed in political campaigns with their daily lives, parents and caregivers need to have honest dialogues about these topics.
High schoolers may begin to develop their own political beliefs. When political messages upset or scare kids, adults can help by acknowledging and listening to their concerns. Adults may quickly dismiss finger-pointing statements, but their impact may be larger with impressionable young minds. It’s best to take your child’s concerns seriously and help them understand your family’s values and perspectives.
The challenge of teaching our kids about civic engagement is obviously not new, and Indiana law requires that the election process be taught in schools. More than 25 years ago, the Indiana Bar Association created the Indiana Kids’ Election. Using volunteer attorneys, this program aims to help students gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the many ways we may participate in our representative democracy, including voting, poll books and “I Voted” stickers.
Carol Adinamis, president of the Indiana State Bar Association, explains the program’s intent is to educate students and their families.
“The goal really is to empower the children with the knowledge of the actual process,” she said. “Most kids would think if 100 people vote for candidate X and 99 people vote for candidate Y, then candidate X wins. That isn’t how our process works. It’s very confusing.”
Our system of government is not only complicated but it also thrives on differing opinions and perspectives. This means children will inevitably encounter family, friends, teachers, coaches and others with differing political beliefs. Experts agree about the importance of teaching kids how to respect and accept these differences.
“Can you still maintain a level of respect and mutuality in those relationships? If you can, then it’s fine that you don’t agree,” Beckmeyer said.
For many, this may be the most difficult aspect of encouraging a child’s sense of civic responsibility. By focusing on the positive attributes of your selected candidates, rather than the negatives of the alternatives, adults have the opportunity and responsibility to model respectful discourse.
Now is the perfect time for children to get involved in civic society. Vote, and take your children with you. Let them volunteer for issues or candidates they support. Share your political views with your children, while also encouraging them to develop their own. Demonstrate that every person has the right to an opinion which is to be respected, even if it differs from your own.
By focusing on the importance of voting and civic engagement, rather than on mudslinging, we can support the healthy growth of our kids and our democracy.
Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.