How to Talk to Your Kids about the Election

How are young kids feeling about the election? What messages are they hearing in the growing political cacophony? Here’s what we have heard from a few Highlights readers: 

“I’m really scared about the turnout of the presidential election,” a reader wrote in an email. “My friends talk about it all the time, and it makes me really uncomfortable.” 

Another child, Avery, wrote to Highlights saying, “I’m an extreme Republican and other kids bully me about it. . . . Help!” 

Pennsylvania third-grader Will says he is pestering his mother to buy him a t-shirt that supports the presidential candidate he hopes will win. 

Confused and worried or engaged and excited, young kids are paying attention to politics. They catch snippets of the news, overhear adult conversations, and argue about the election with friends. Kids don’t miss much—although they are often better observers than interpreters. That’s why it’s incumbent upon parents to step in—to correct misunderstandings, to allay fears, and, most importantly, to encourage their kids to become civic-minded. 

Politics has always made for challenging parent-child conversations. And in an election season like 2020, when it seems that the only thing the country can agree upon is that the country is deeply divided, these discussions can be especially daunting. Yet, to avoid the subject because it feels so fraught is to miss the opportunity to expose your kids to a few big ideas that go beyond politics—ideas that can help them develop an optimistic worldview. A worldview that includes an understanding of what it means to be a member of a community. A worldview that includes a belief in the good intentions of others and in their own ability to make the world a better place. 

Begin by Checking In 

If your child hasn’t broached the subject of the election with you, it’s time to check in. A good way to open the door to conversation is with a few simple questions: “What have you heard about the election? How do you feel about the candidates? Is anything concerning or confusing to you?” Then lean in and listen. You may be surprised by what you hear, and by the strong emotions that bubble up—perhaps in both of you. If you think staying calm and collected might be tough, take a walk while you talk, or find another time when you can be fully present and relaxed. 

Use Simple Language 

Set the table for a deeper conversation by starting with a simple truth. Using a metaphor young kids can understand, talk about the similarities between being a family member and being a good citizen—two roles that come with expectations for interacting with and caring for others. Explain voting as one of the important responsibilities of citizenship and the primary way we influence the decisions our local, state, and federal government makes—decisions that shape our lives. When kids, who often feel powerless, understand the impact of voting (and see you voting), they will be more likely to think of themselves as future voters—as people with agency. They will see voting as a way of taking action and making their thoughts heard. They will see the value in their own voice. 

Lean into Your Family’s Values 

That’s the easy part! What’s harder is helping them see that the voices of others also have value. Most young kids adopt the political views of their parents, and they tend to think their parents know best. While this conversation is a chance to restate your family’s values and tie them to your political views, it is also an opportunity to point out that listening to different opinions is a way to show kindness and respect, even when we don’t agree. 

Help your kids also see another compelling reason to listen respectfully to other points of view: doing so leads us to examine our own convictions more closely. Sometimes this results in strengthening our beliefs, and sometimes it alters how we see an issue. In a world where politicians tend to stick hard and fast to their talking points, even in the face of new information, it’s good to remind kids (and ourselves) that a change of mind is OK when new facts emerge. 

Reinforce Critical Thinking Skills 

Although your kids may be too young to do more than repeat what they hear you saying, they can benefit from hearing how you decide what to believe. Again, keep it simple. Talk about the importance of asking questions and the need for fact-checking. Explain how you judge the reliability of news sources. These are critical-thinking tools kids need to evaluate all kinds of information. 

Use Bad Examples to Teach 

In the interest of fairness, point out that candidates in all parties can misrepresent facts or engage in hyperbole—sometimes for political gain and sometimes unintentionally out of passion. Certainly, we’ve seen plenty of bad behaviors from politicians, from name-calling and mockery to bullying. When your child sees this, make it a teachable moment. Letting it go without comment helps normalize it. Call it out as inappropriate, lest your child thinks you condone it. Remind kids that people in power sometimes fail to model the behavior we hope children will emulate. 

Help Them Connect the Dots 

Although it may be the news-making drama that first catches your child’s interest, resolve to focus mostly on the issues. As our reader mail regularly reminds us, even young kids have hopes and dreams for the world we inhabit. They write to us about climate change, social injustice, public health in the time of COVID, quality education, and more. What concern resonates with your child? Learning about the candidates’ positions on an issue your child cares about is a concrete way to connect the dots between their idealism and the power of voting. 

Yes, your child is too young to vote. But your child is not too young to decide to become a voter when it’s time. By talking now about the importance of being a responsible citizen and an informed voter, you help them see that they can be changemakers. You stoke their confidence, strengthen their voice, and help them build empathy and optimism for a world that that only gets better when thoughtful citizens engage. 

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....