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.
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.
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.
- Bad Kitty for President
- Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles.
- The Founding Fathers: Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America
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-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-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.
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