During this divisive election season, parents may wonder if their kids are up for discussions about bickering candidates and the latest ballot measures.
But if your kids are older, there’s a good chance they may already be hearing about the election on social media or from friends, says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides families with recommendations on entertainment, technology and media. This may be a great time to beef up your kids’ critical thinking, news literacy and civics skills, she says.
But she also cautions parents to avoid talking about politics and news with their kids when they are too young. Kids under the ages of 7 or 8 may have difficulty understanding the issues and may even worry about their safety.
"Parents should be a little more careful with news exposure for kids under 7," Knorr says. "For this age, we recommend using very basic, simple language: ‘Two people were mad at each other.’ Make sure kids under 7 understand the issues in the news aren’t related to their own family and that the child isn’t to blame."
For older kids, there may be influences from social media and YouTube. When kids want to talk about news from these sources, parents shouldn’t dismiss or minimize it, she says. In fact, this is a good opportunity to talk to them about news literacy and credibility of sources.
Knorr suggests: Ask them questions about who wrote the story. Was it an opinion piece or an objective news story?
Parents shouldn’t feel like they need to shield their kids from election news unless they are really young. "We have had a lot of divisiveness in the air," she says. "Kids are going to be exposed to things and they are going to hear a lot of inappropriate things. Ask them what their friends are saying. Ask them how they feel."
When children start developing opinions of their own, parents can help by teaching them how to support their views. It’s natural for a lot of kids to gravitate toward the same views as their parents. But parents should encourage them to do their own research.
"Instead of imposing your views, ask them to tell you more about what they think," Knorr says. "They will rise to the challenge to support their opinions."
Raising Politically Savvy Kids
For Emi Ponce de Souza and her husband, talking to their kids about politics has become a necessity. The former San Francisco resident who now lives in Seattle has kids ages 13, 14 and 17. During the 2016 presidential election, the children were ages 8-12. There were moments, she says, when they had to explain what was going on.
"We’ve always had dinner-time conversations, but suddenly we were surrounded and bombarded by public name-calling, talks of deportations (I am a Mexican immigrant), and protests," Ponce de Souza says. "It was never an option to not discuss politics. The only way to make sure the kids were understanding what was happening around them in an age-appropriate and trustworthy fashion was to explain it to them ourselves."
When her kids were younger, she tried to talk to them about these issues in simpler terms. Eventually, the family began to discuss news events on a regular basis at the dinner table.
"The kids understood that this was affecting their world, their friends, their community and communities that weren’t theirs, as well," she says. "We would pick one or two pieces of news every single day from the barrage of events and discuss them at the dinner table."
While they don’t watch much television, Ponce de Souza says they read a lot of print and online news sources. They started having their kids read The Skimm, a short collection of daily stories.
Now that the children are older, they have become more independent with their social media use and news consumption, but the parents still emphasize the importance of reliable news sources, she says. All of this has helped her children understand the importance of being involved with the political process, Ponce de Souza says.
"They have all seen us make call after call to our local representatives and have known the names of their reps, as well as those of many other politicians on a national level, for years," she says. "They’ve come to protests with us and understand the importance of being participative in the political process, and elevating the voices of those who have been historically oppressed."
Preparing Future Voters
Educating your kids about elections is particularly important when they are getting close to voting age.
Sarah Cheung, a 17-year-old who serves on the San Francisco Youth Commission, helped get Proposition G on the November ballot which, which if approved by voters, will allow 16- and 17-year-olds in the city to vote in municipal elections.
Teens want to be more politically engaged and involved in decision making locally and nationally, Cheung says. This has become especially apparent in the last couple of years with teens coming out in droves to support things like Black Lives Matter.
"I think a lot of teens are interested in voting. I have a wide network of friends and pretty much everyone is interested in voting. In the classroom, we have a lot of conversations about what’s going on politically," she says. "There’s so much going on now. There are so many different perspectives on these different issues."
While Cheung isn’t old enough to vote, she’s already been involved with numerous campaigns, including Mayor London Breed’s election and Proposition 15, which would Increase funding for public schools, community colleges and local government services by changing tax assessment of some commercial and industrial property.
Cheung says she is willing to do the research needed to make decisions on a ballot measure. She reads articles online and on social media but always makes sure they are from reliable sources. She also talks to her parents a lot about politics.
"At school, we do learn about what is creditable news and what isn’t," Cheung says. "I know how to look for that and check sources and make sure they are creditable. … I’m so excited about being able to vote. I wish I could vote in this election."