Parent’s Guide to Talking about Elections with Young Children
by Dr. Ginny Trierweiler, the Born 4 Brilliance Parent Coach
It’s now 2 weeks to Election Day. Doesn’t it feel as though this Presidential campaign has been interminable and exhausting? Teachers have been sharing concerns about how the increase in coarse talk and addressed the level of stress and anxiety associated with this election in ways I’ve never seen them do before. And I heard a preacher recently telling parents to quit expressing their worries about all this so openly, saying “you’re scaring the children!”
Some of my parent coaching clients have asked for a guide to talking about elections with young children so here are some guidelines.
Scenario A: My young child hasn’t asked any questions—she’s only 2 years old! But, she looks wide-eyed and worried when we talk about the candidates while watching an ad or a debate on television. How should we talk about this with her?
You have noticed that your toddler seems worried about this when you talk about it. One thing you can do is talk calmly about the worried feelings she is observing, and then reassure her. For a 2 year old, parents are practically all-powerful beings, so if the parents are afraid, maybe the world is about to end! You could say, “Your Daddy and I are talking about the upcoming Presidential election and we are a little worried about it. But it’s all going to be okay. Everyone is safe.”
Scenario B: My young child has noticed all the talk about the presidential campaign and politics and has been asking questions. He’s too young to understand our system of government. How should we answer his questions?
- What is “voting?” Voting is a way for a group to make decisions. You can share an example, such as “When we order pizza, we all vote on what toppings to have. We get the ones that most of us agree on.” That may be all he wants to know!
- What is the President? The President is an important leader in our country who makes agreements with other countries and chooses people for government jobs. Personally, I would also say a little bit about how the President is not a monarch or dictator. There are other important groups that work with the President to lead our country, such as our Senators and Representatives and the judges on the Supreme Court. A young child won’t understand all of this but it may be worth stating anyway. When they hear it later in school, it will be familiar.
- Can I vote? In our country, a person has to be 18 years old to vote; you can vote for President when you’re 18 years old.
Scenario C: My children are 3, 5 and 7 and they have heard derogatory words about women and minorities that I don’t even want them to know about. I feel like I want to provide calm guidance to them, but it makes me so mad! What should I do?
This is an opportunity for you to talk about values for how to treat other people. Talk about how people sometimes use mean and ugly words to hurt or try to control other people, and it’s not okay. It’s never okay to grab someone. It’s scary and upsetting. You don’t ever have to let anyone grab you and I never want to hear that you grabbed someone else. OR Calling names to hurt people is not okay. That’s not how we want to be talked to and that’s not how talk to people. We’re not that kind of people. We’re the kind of people who care about others and treat them with kindness and respect.
Engage them in dialogue. It wouldn’t benefit anyone for your young child to parrot your choice for President and argue it with other young children on the playground. However, you can use “teachable moments” like these to help them develop critical thinking abilities that will help them make good decisions, including choosing the best leaders, when they grow up.
Questions like these may be helpful:
- If your child is talking about the election, you can ask them what they have noticed about it. Then, just listen. You can discover if they have some misconceptions that you can clear up and you can discover if they have some fears or worries that you can reassure them about.
- When your child says they like something, ask them “What do you like about it?” Just wait and hear out their reasons. You can reflect it back, i.e. “You like Thomas the Train because he can do it.” It doesn’t matter what they say. You are helping them think through their reasons for liking something. I bet you can think of many life circumstances in which thinking through their reasons for liking something or someone could be beneficial for them.
- Similarly, if your child says “I don’t like him (or her),” you can help by asking them to articulate their thoughts and feelings on the matter. “What don’t you like about him?” You can reflect it back, i.e. “You don’t like him because he seems mean. I think I can see what you’re talking about there. It is harder to like someone when they seem mean.”
- Ask “What was your favorite part about this book (or the trip to the zoo today)?”
You’re helping them articulate their thoughts, reactions and preferences. By accepting them, and not trying to make them think, react and like the same things you do, you’re also communicating that you value your young child as an individual with their own heart, mind and soul. And that is a precious gift indeed.
What have you done to help your child understand what’s going on this election season?