Parenting with a PhD: Kids and Politics

featured, to live — By on October 3, 2012 at 8:35 am

By: Kristen Berthiaume

As parents, we want to pass on our values and beliefs to our children and we do this in a variety of ways everyday.  Many of us may worry about our kids hearing opinions we strongly disagree with and this is never more likely than at election time. A quick perusal of any Facebook feed shows that folks are not shy about expressing their political opinions. At all. Even if your child isn’t on Facebook (and most of our kids probably shouldn’t be…), he’s bound to see political ads and signs, or overhear politically charged conversations – probably on a daily, if not hourly, basis. So, what can parents do when they want their children to know about the political process (Voting = Good!) but don’t want to expose their kids to the nastiness? Here are some tips for how to (and how not to) involve your child in politics:

Talk about the process.  All younger kids need is the basics.  People go and vote for who they want to do jobs like be the President.  Whoever gets the most votes wins!  For older kids, you can explain (or at least try to explain) all the Electoral College business.  Talk about how the various candidates have ideas about the best way to run the country (or city or state) and we vote for the person whose ideas we agree with most.  Discuss the ways you learn what positions each candidate holds like reading information in the newspaper, watching the news or debates, and visiting candidates’ websites.  Mark Election Day on the calendar and do a countdown when we get close – this makes voting something to look forward to!

Take your child to vote.  This is an easy one. Kids are more likely to vote when they’re old enough if they were aware of you voting when they were little. Before you vote, talk about a few, age-appropriate issues that you feel strongly about. Explain how you’re voting and why. Focus on what you’re for rather than what you’re against. Rather than explaining why you don’t like the other candidate (or, even more problematic, engaging in personal attacks against him or her), talk about how the candidate you’re supporting believes similarly to you.  For older kids, it’s o.k. to make some generalizations about major political parties such as “Republican candidates usually believe…” or “Democratic candidates usually believe…” but too much focus on party preference fails to give your child the background she needs to really understand why you’re making the choices you’re making.
Let your child vote.  Help your child set up an election with her stuffed animals.  Choose a particular issue like, “What’s the most fun game to play?” Decide on a few “candidates” and choose a “position” for each.  Your daughter’s favorite doll may feel that tea parties are best – we’ll call her the Tea Party Candidate (Sorry – couldn’t resist!).  Her teddy bear might find picnics to be most fun while the stuffed unicorn (I know your daughter has at least one) prefers story time.  After each “candidate” has stated his or her position, let the other stuffed animals “vote” by drawing a picture or writing the name of the candidate they choose on a scrap of paper and dropping it in a hat.  For added fun, print out a ballot and let your child mark each stuffed animal’s choice.  Then, count the votes and determine a winner.  Throw a party (or picnic) and have some speeches. Consider talking about how the winner might feel about being chosen and how he or she should act towards the other candidates.  Also, discuss the importance of the losing candidates being good sports and trying again next time.

Let your child have an opinion. Your child may surprise you by already having a viewpoint on certain issues. Try not to take him having a different opinion from yours as a threat. Remember, he is still trying out this thing called a brain and realizing that his beliefs don’t always have to be the same as yours. It’s a good idea to correct misconceptions he may have and engage him in friendly (did you catch the word “friendly?”) debate about the issues. Try to communicate how your position on an issue is in line with your core values. For example, if you support raising the minimum wage, explain that you do so because you believe people who work hard should be rewarded. Don’t expect his opinion to change by the end of the conversation. Chances are his underlying values will pretty closely reflect yours by the time he’s of voting age – particularly if you weren’t overly demanding that he fall in line.

Limit your child’s exposure.  Politics can get pretty yucky. I am thankful everyday for the ability to fast forward through political ads because I can’t stomach some of them. Your child doesn’t need to hear some of that information and definitely doesn’t need to see your reaction to hearing some of that information (you can’t be bleeped so be careful!). If you’re able to skip commercials – do it. Teach your kids how to skip them, too. This will probably save you a lot of heartache at the holidays – just think of all the hot new toys they’ll never know about! Political bickering is just one of the many reasons not to watch the news with your young child in the room (by early adolescence, many kids can handle it – provided that they’re not overly anxious). Look for child-oriented political information, such as can be found on www.kids.usa.gov, www.bensguide.gpo.gov, or   www.library.thinkquest.org/5873. Also, find lots of Election-related crafts and games at www.pinterest.com or  www.apples4theteacher.com/holidays/election-day. Make sure to discuss anything political your child watches or reads to clear up confusion.

Steer clear of topics that aren’t age-appropriate.  There are a number of hot button issues in the current election (e.g., gay marriage, abortion, immigration) that may not have a place during dinner time discussion with your kids. Parents sometimes feel that expressing views about such issues when kids are young will ensure adherence to the family’s belief system later; however, most kids under age 8 are not ready to hear about complicated issues like abortion (and many aren’t for a while after that). Whatever you believe about this issue, trying to explain your position to a young child is likely to result in confusion and unnecessary distress for her. A good rule of thumb, if your child is too young to know specifics about how a pregnancy was started, she is definitely not ready to hear about how one might be terminated. When it comes to more mature topics, communicate to your child the core values you hold but not your stance on specific issues. For example, if you’re against abortion, have conversations with your child about how significant each person’s life is. If you’re pro-choice, focus on the importance of individuals making their own decisions, depending on what’s right for them. When your child is older, these concepts can be applied when you’re ready to have a conversation about your stance on abortion. Be careful, too, in expressing negative feelings towards an entire group of people. You may understand the complexities of the issue but making sweeping generalizations can lead your child to stereotype others. Take the issue of gay marriage. If you’re of the opinion that it should not be legal, it’s fine to explain to your child what you believe marriage is or should be; however, it’s important that you avoid making negative statements about individuals who are homosexual. Why? Because your child may take this as permission or even encouragement to bully peers who he knows or perceives to be gay.

The bottom line is that involving your children in politics is a great way to teach them about our government and to start them on the road to being responsible citizens.  However, it’s important to be careful about exposing them to the negative side of politics too early, which can leave them jaded or disinterested.  Instilling your family’s values in your children and explaining how those values guide your political decisions will help your kids form their own, well-reasoned opinions.  Ultimately, this practice will lead to fewer baseless Facebook (Version 27.0.1?) rants and will better-equip our future generations to participate in the political process when they reach voting age.

For the record, I’d totally vote for the unicorn!

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: parentingwithaphd@gmail.com Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates (www.graysonmentalhealth.com). She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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    4 Comments

  • Laura says:

    One of the best books we’ve found for teaching about elections is GRACE FOR PRESIDENT, by Kelly DiPucchio. My daughter loves it, and it explains the electoral college, how to run a successful campaign, and the importance of every vote. We’ve been reading it a lot the past few weeks – highly recommended!

  • Kristen Berthiaume says:

    Awesome, Laura! Thanks for the recommendation – I will check that out for my kiddos!

  • Anne Whirley says:

    Wow! This article is so comprehensive and thoughtful. You’ve done a great job of presenting the info in an unbiased but clear way. (Or could it be that I’m a little biased myself?)

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