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 election-related media, including ads, debates and political commentaries. 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. Middle schoolers may begin to connect political issues with their lives, requiring open dialogues from adults. And teens start to develop their own political beliefs.
Indiana law requires the election process be taught in schools. To fulfill that requirement, some schools may use the Indiana Kids’ Election. Volunteer attorneys from the Indiana State Bar Association speak to students about our representative democracy, including voting, poll books and the “I Voted” stickers. Carol Adinamis, president of the Indiana State Bar Association, says the program’s intent is to educate students and their families about the complexities of the system and process.
Our government is complicated but also thrives on differing opinions. This means children will inevitably encounter others holding differing beliefs. Experts agree it’s important to teach 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,” says Beckmeyer.
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 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 them, while encouraging them to develop their own. Demonstrate that everyone 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. To provide feedback on the column, she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI)