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Talking about Government and Politics with Children

Children learn from a young age about our government by participating in national holidays, such as Memorial Day and the 4th of July; reciting the pledge of allegiance in school; and commemorating the American flag during National Flag Day and the 4th of July.  As children progress in school, they learn about the three branches of our federal government and the political process through presidential elections and history lessons. In the United States, the right to vote begins at 18 years of age. Many high-school seniors will be old enough to vote before they graduate! Now, more than ever, with the availability of instant information and prevalence of, at times, misleading facts, it is important for parents to have age-appropriate discussions with their children about government and politics. Here are some tips on how to talk to children of all ages about our government and politics.

Preschool

Complex government systems and political climate may be topics that are beyond what young children can understand. Preschool-aged children are, however, experienced in justice and fairness, and they can understand basic democracy. Explain that voting is democracy. We vote for our leaders. Let them know that we vote for our president every 4 years. Demonstrate democracy by creating voting opportunities for your children and the whole family by holding votes on activities like what movie to watch, what restaurant to go to for dinner, or what kind of pizza to order.

Elementary

By elementary-age, children begin to understand political parties and their platforms. They can also learn about democracy, patriotism, and American history. At this age, children often become aware of political messaging. Explain we are all part of one country with many different kinds of people who have diverse ideas, values, and beliefs. Talk with your children about negative political advertisements on television and social media and help them understand how to research issues in order to separate fact from fiction.

Discuss ads. When a political ad pops up on the computer screen or is played on television, use this opportunity to talk about what the ad claims and how visuals and music are used to evoke emotions in viewers. Talk about the negative ads, and explain it is a competition to get everyone’s vote.

Try news for kids. Many online news sources provide information that is appropriate for children viewers. Explore the news sources listed below with your child.

Read books about American politics for kids. There are several books available that teach children about American politics; some of those books are listed below.

Avoid hard to understand controversial topics. Children may not able to understand controversial topics, but they are exposed to them and can feel the emotion behind the rhetoric. Remember, children will pick up on your reactions and the reactions of others. When children are present, be mindful of what they hear on television news stations, and mute the television, if you can, to avoid confusing your child or creating anxiety for him or her. Change the channel to something age appropriate for you both to share.

Middle School

Middle school-age children are able to understand more complex concepts and may be learning in-depth information about our government in school. They may have a better understanding of the separation of local, state, and federal governments. This could be a good time to start some deeper discussions.

  • Talk about political ads. You can ask your child some questions to start a conversation.
  • How is a commercial different than a political advertisement?
  • How are they similar?
  • Who pays for political ads?
  • Do political ads help candidates win elections?

Tackle the tough topics. Children in middle school may not be able to understand the bullying and mudslinging that occurs during political campaigns. They may hear about things you will need to explain further, and these topics may be issues you didn’t expect to have to explain. If this happens, try to focus on the positive aspects of the candidates and the important issues of the election. Ask your child to pick out one or two real issues that are important to him or her to discuss.

Try to explain how elections work. Ask your child if he or she votes for a class president at school?  This opportunity presents is a good way to explain the election system to your child. Explore other things your child may vote for in or out of school, such as which book to study next or where the class will visit on their next field trip and discuss the voting process.

High School

High school-aged children are our future voters! At this point, they should be well educated in our government’s history, have a clear understanding of patriotism, and may be able to have debates on controversial topics. Teens learn how to research scientific and factual information in school for projects. Help your child apply this skill and look for the differences between fact and opinion in political messaging.

Discuss campaign issues. Some parents have difficulty understanding certain political issues; this makes explaining those issues to children difficult. National news during election seasons can become captivating for its excessiveness, and information, whether true or false, has the potential to go viral on social media sites. When discussing campaign issues with children, try to ask open-ended questions like, “Do you think they are a good candidate?” “What is important to you?” Let your child speak freely about how he or she feels about a certain topic and let him or her try to make up his or her own mind about topics and issues.

Watch the news together. Pick a topic, and compare the differences in how it is reported on one network versus another. Point out when you hear facts and when you hear opinions.

Talk about polls. Explain that polls are not facts but estimates, and the results of the poll can be completely different depending on where the poll was taken and who is paying for the poll.

Social Media, aka the land of opinion. Talk to children about the risks of conversing about politics with friends, family members, and even strangers (who may follow the same page or politician) on social media. However, be sure to explain that it’s okay to be passionate about one’s values and beliefs, but it is not okay to be disrespectful of others’ values and beliefs. We are all free to have our own political choices.

References

Bright horizons.  (2020). Teaching your children about politics and government. https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/teaching-children-about-politics-and-government

Mcmahon, R. (2018, August 17). Easy ways to steer kids through the political season. Commonsense media. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/easy-ways-to-steer-kids-through-the-political-season

Nolas, S., Varvantakis, C., & Aruldoss, V. (2017). Talking politics in everyday family lives. Contemporary Social Science, 12(1-2), 68-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2017.1330965

Teaching Children about Respecting Differences

Our world is constantly changing, and, as it becomes more diverse and interconnected, children need to understand that all people are unique; they have varying abilities, beliefs, and traditions; and they are important as individuals. Children begin to notice differences in their toddler years. As children grow into adults, they will encounter diversity in every aspect of their lives.

Here are some tips to help parents teach children about diversity, model appropriate responses to differences and similarities among peers, and help create a positive perspective on others.

Celebrate differences!

Have open discussions with your child to help him or her understand and respect the differences among all people and also mention the similarities people share. It is natural for your child to notices differences, use this as an opportunity to start a conversation and provide an age-appropriate explanation. If you do not have an answer immediately, tell your child you will think about his or her question and respond soon. If you realize later a response you provided may be biased, tell your child you are also learning to be more inclusive.

Create diversity in your own environment.

Not everyone lives in an area that is culturally diverse. But, as a parent, you can create a diverse environment through play and learning. For example, teach your child basic sign language and arrange play dates with people who are different from you.  In addition, children’s books are available that represent a variety of ethnicities and cultures, and they embrace differences and promote acceptance. Visit this website for some books that discuss diversity https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/childrens-books-about-race-and-diversity

Teach your children about empathy.

You can teach your children about empathy by modeling empathetic or compassionate behavior.  For example, volunteer at a soup kitchen or collect dog or cat food to stock an animal shelter. Caring for animals and plants can teach children how to care for or help another living thing grow and thrive.  When your child is excited or upset or experiences a strong emotion, name and discuss those different feelings. Help him or her understand that others have these feelings too and try to consider how others may feel in a similar situation. Use playtime to teach empathy. For example, as a fun game, tape emoticons (which are used in everyday texting and posting) on the wall and ask your child to demonstrate those feelings and what kinds of thing may make him or her feel that way.

Unlearn your own biases.

We are currently living in an era of acceptance and celebrating diversity can create confusion for some individuals if they have lived in a culture flooded with or experienced years of negative imagery and discrimination.  Help yourself! Explore diversity and learn as much as you can about differences. Parents can look inward to see where their own bias may lie. Harvard scientists have developed, Project Implicit, which provides quizzes and tools for you to examine your own personal biases. Project implicit tasks and tools can be found here https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/featuredtask.html

Keep the conversation going!

Discuss ways you can talk about diversity with your child by expanding the conversation by including friends and family. Join the pursuit of celebrating differences through solidarity by recognizing and attending events in your community that promote unity.  Attend an arts festival, visit nearby cultural centers, tour museums, or explore different foods from around the world.

Additional Resources

We are different, we are the same: Teaching Young Children about Diversity.

https://extension.psu.edu/programs/betterkidcare/knowledge-areas/environment-curriculum/activities/all-activities/we-are-different-we-are-the-same-teaching-young-children-about-diversity

How to Teach Children about Cultural Awareness and Diversity.

https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-teach-children-about-cultural-awareness-and-diversity

How to Talk to Kids about Tolerance, Acceptance and Diversity.

https://thrive.psu.edu/blog/page/2/

References

de Novais, J. & Spencer, G. (2018). Learning race to unlearn racism: The effects of ethnic studies course-taking. The Journal of Higher Education, 90(6), 860-883. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2018.1545498

Krieger, N., Carney, D., Lancaster, K., Waterman, P. D., Kosheleva, A., & Banaji, M. (2010). Combining explicit and implicit measures of racial discrimination in health research. American Journal of Public Health, 100(8), 1485–1492. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.159517

Warren, C. A. (2014). Towards a pedagogy for the application of empathy in culturally diverse classrooms. The Urban Review, 46(3), 395-419. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1007/s11256-013-0262-5

Managing Screen Time During COVID-19

As a result of COVID-19, the use of electronic devices for learning, connecting, and recreating has increased greatly. With this increase, families may be concerned about how much screen time is too much screen time for their children. Keep it simple. Remember, screen time management during COVID-19 is more about quality and less about quantity.

As we navigate our new normal, guidelines exist to offer direction for all aspects of our lives, including recommendations for screen time management. These parameters highlight the importance of quality over quantity. Screens can be used for nearly every daily task, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified that use. We are faced with a new reality where most of what we do, and what our children do, involves some kind of screen time.

Consider how much of what you do involves screen time now versus before the pandemic. You are able to purchase necessary items, like food, cleaning supplies, and clothing, online; communicate with friends and family through video chats; and attend a virtual tele-health visit with medical providers. While screen time use was expected to increase and has escalated during the pandemic, it is the way in which screen time is used that matters the most. For children, low-quality screen time or recreational screen time should still be limited. Below are some tips to help ensure quality screen time use even though the quantity has increased.

Quality versus Quantity tips during COVID-19 

Not all screen time use is equal.

Quality screen time includes video calling to connect with friends and family. If the screen time is spent doing activities that would have been done in person before COVID-19, then the activity does not count as recreational screen time. Playing video games without educational content is an example of recreational screen time with low quality.

Incorporate physical activity.

Engaging in physical activity is very important and can be incorporated into quality screen time through the use of specific apps. Many apps are free and available for children to use to increase their activity levels.

Create personal space.

Use screen time to create personal space in your home. You may have taken on the roles of school teacher, child care worker, full-time employee, and homemaker – at the same time. Let your child watch a favorite movie if you are busy with work or other activities in which your child cannot participate. Just remember to aim for 2 hours or less a day of low-quality recreational screen time.

Plan ahead.

Find apps, games, and videos that your child can safely do by himself or herself. Add these to your daily routine. Think of educational screen time as a new platform for learning.

Safety first.

Manage your children’s safety settings and parental permissions. Keep all devices centrally located to keep track of use. Have children return devices to the central location after they are finished with their activity.

Develop a family media plan.

Create a family media plan to ensure quality over quantity. Visit HealthyChildren.org to create a customized online family media plan (Spanish option available).

Additional Resources

Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State. (2020). Tips for working at home with kidshttps://thrive.psu.edu/blog/tips-for-working-at-home-with-kids/

Unicef Kid Power. (2020). Best apps for keeping kids active. https://www.unicefkidpower.org/best-apps-for-keeping-kids-active/

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020, April 20). Parenting during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Advice from psychologists on the best ways to cope with the new way of life—and the new stressors—caused by the global health crisis. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/parenting-during-pandemic

Nagata, J., Abdel Magid, H., & Gabriel, K. (Accepted/In Press). Screen time for children and adolescents during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Obesity. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22917

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