By: Dr. Tami Silverman
The pandemic has heightened tensions over this year’s elections, and our kids are paying attention. They listen as negative political ads blare from our TV screens and radios. They see the political rants swirling on social media. Should we shield our children from the frequently fiery arguments? Should we engage them in discussions and debates? What happens when their friends or family members declare differing political beliefs? How we approach politics with our children is important not only in this heated election cycle, but also in shaping their understanding of democratic civic engagement for years to come.
A March 2020 study published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development found that children and teens worry about politics and political issues, regardless of their family’s political affiliation. This research and many child development experts suggest that talking to kids about the political process, issues, elections and related media can help. Children as young as preschool can discuss and be engaged in our political process. The challenge is to adjust the approach to their developmental stage. It is important to scaffold our responses, increasing and building the complexity of the information as kids get older.
The challenge of teaching our kids about civic engagement is not new, and Indiana law requires that the election process be taught in schools. Over 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. The program’s goal is to educate and empower children with knowledge of the actual process. Most kids would think if 100 people vote for candidate X and 99 people vote for candidate Y, then candidate X wins. With the electoral college, that is not how our Presidential electoral process works, and it is very confusing.
Not only is our system of government complicated, but public discussion of government,policy and candidates frequently focuses on divides in opinions and perspectives. This means children will inevitably encounter family, friends, teachers, coaches, and others holdingdiffering political beliefs. Experts agree about the importance of teaching kids how to respectdifferences, and of learning how to weigh the evidence supporting political positions and claims. For many, this may be the most difficult aspect of encouraging a child’s sense of civic responsibility. By focusing in part 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 with your children your political views, while also encouraging them to develop their own. Reinforce that people may hold differing opinions about important issues, and that we can challenge claims and disagree while at the same time recognizing and respecting one another’s human dignity. 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.
Websites with kid- and teen- friendly news
Political books and games for kids
- Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel
- Duck for President by Doreen Cronin
- Election Connection by Susan Ring
- Election Night! board game
- Everyone Gets a Say by Jill Twiss
- Grace Goes to Washington by Kelly S. DiPucchio
- Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio
- If I Were President by Catherine Stier
- If You Go with Your Goat to Vote by Jan Zauzmer
- A Kids Book About Voting by Next Up
- Monopoly: House Divided board game
- The Next President by Kate Messner
- Vote! by Eileen Christelow
- One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote by Bonnie Worth
- A Vote Is a Powerful Thing by Catherine Stier
- V Is for Voting by Kate Farrell
(Dr. Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)