How to talk to your kids about the election
We are in the final weeks of an election that is dividing the nation and could be dividing your children’s classrooms (virtual or in-person) and their friend groups.
How do we answer their questions, be the mature adults we need to be and support the right to a different opinion when we might be feeling our own frustrations building?
How we talk to kids really depends on how old they are, says Allison Chase, regional managing clinical director of Eating Recovery Center and the newly renamed Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in Austin.
If you’re talking to elementary school kids, keep it simple, Chase says. Focus on celebrating the right to vote, and explain, without editorializing, the roles of a president, a senator, a congressperson and other elected officials.
You can give simple goals: “Our goal is to select somebody who is going to best suit our interests and our needs,” she says. As well, you can teach kids to recognize that different people have different things that they like and that are important to them. They might then choose a different candidate.
With middle-schooler and high-schoolers, you can discuss a candidate’s positions and what they think is important to them in selecting a candidate.
Talk to kids about your plan to vote (or how you voted if you already have). Look up when they will be eligible to vote and get them excited about exercising their right to vote.
It would be easy as parents to disparage people who vote differently than us, but think about the message sent to kids.
“We always have to start with ourselves before we work on our kids,” says Austin psychologist Mike Brooks. “We have to keep our own composure. ... We’re role models, and the kids are looking to us.”
That means the messaging can’t be “doom and gloom” or “catastrophizing,” Brooks says. We also can’t be “vilifying the other side.”
“The hate is what’s bad for our country, so we can’t be carrying hate within us,” he says. “Carrying anger and hate within us is not only bad for other people, but for ourselves.”
Instead what we have to work on as people, particularly as parents, is “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Brooks says, even if that neighbor has a sign on their lawn for a candidate you don’t support.
How do we, and our kids, not perpetuate the fighting before and after the election?
Talk about facts. Look up independent sources of information when kids have questions or make statements. Help them find good sources of information, which might not be their favorite celebrity on TikTok or Instagram.
Look for and help your kids find the commonality between you and someone you don’t agree with. A good start is that we all love our kids and want them to be happy and healthy, Brooks says.
This is a great moment to teach our kids and ourselves this lesson: If we’re going to engage in a heated discussion, are we trying to learn from one another or are we just trying to win an argument? Are we willing to listen or do we just want to argue? Is our relationship with that other person more important than trying to sway them (which we probably won’t at this point)? Attacking someone for their point of view might only entrench their thinking, Brooks says.
One of the things we can do — for ourselves and our kids — is to take a break from the constant outrage. That means limiting everyone’s exposure to a 24-hour news cycle. It means controlling our own reactions when there is news.
It also starts with the message we are telling our kids about people who don’t vote like us. Calling them all idiots is not a message we want to send to our children, Brooks says. Kids have learned about “no place for hate” in school, and just like other groups of people, there is “no place for hate” toward people who vote differently than us.
Brooks reminds that we want to “be the change you want to see in the world. If you can’t have conversations with your neighbor, how can you expect things to be different?”
Prepare kids for how they will handle the day after Election Day (if we know the results by then). Think of it like a big Texas-Oklahoma football game. We wouldn’t want people from Oklahoma making fun of us, right? So, we probably shouldn’t make fun of them the next time the Longhorns win.
Talk to kids ahead of time about how they will handle it if their side wins or if their side doesn’t win. Ask them: If someone makes fun of you, what will you do?
Let them know it will be OK to be disappointed. Sometimes sitting in the disappointment is the way we grow as people, Chase says. “It’s a great opportunity to work on that emotional tolerance piece that so many kids struggle with,” she says.
Kids are like sponges, Chase says. “There’s nothing wrong with seeing disappointment and frustration,” she says. Even better is when kids see you rise above it.
Preparing for and then sitting in the disappointment can lead to focusing on what you can control. What can they do to get involved in the next election in a productive way? A great lesson in advocacy could unfold.
If kids are expressing fear about what might happen if a candidate wins, hear them, and then try to calm their concerns. Talk to them about what won’t change, including that you will be there for them and be ready to listen.