Some have described this year’s presidential election as a roller-coaster ride. In that it’s leaving a lot of us feeling out of control and wanting to scream, the metaphor is apt. The mudslinging, name-calling, and truth stretching is at an all-time high.
We’re bombarded with it every day.
And our children are hearing it, too.
As parents, our first instinct may be to shield our children from this negativity. And if your children are small (preschoolers or younger) or especially sensitive, that’s probably right. But if your children ask you about what they hear, don’t shy away from an age-appropriate conversation. Start by asking a few questions to gauge their level of understanding and to discover just what it is that’s confusing or troubling them. Then don’t “dump the whole load.” Chances are that younger children are seeking reassurance more than answers. They mostly want to hear from you that everything’s all right.
Older children, however, may need to hear more.
In our annual State of the Kid™ survey, Highlights for Children polled kids ages six to twelve about the election and this year’s race to the White House. For starters, we wanted to know if kids this age are talking about the election with their parents. Given the provocative nature of the political discourse this year, we think engaging kids in conversation about it is critical. Other parents seem to think so, too, as 80 percent of kids surveyed said yes—they are talking at home about the election at least a little. And while we don’t know what parents are saying to their kids, our poll results give us a few clues about what kids may want or need to hear.
Kids told us, for example, that our country’s safety is one of their big concerns. When asked, “What is the first thing the new president should work on?” 50 percent of our respondents said “keeping the country safe.” And when we asked them to name a quality they thought was most important for a president to have, 44 percent of them chose honesty over smarts, kindness, experience, and courage.
Kids’ concerns, it seems, very much mirror those of their parents.
We spoke about this with Dr. Sasha Ribic, a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to children. “By nature,” she said, “kids are good observers, but bad interpreters.” While kids will astutely observe safety is an issue—and many bad things are happening—they aren’t good at interpreting what it means for them. Because they may worry disproportionately, she advises parents to use conversations to put safety into perspective for them. She suggests that kids picture a room filled with popcorn, and one piece has a red dot on it. Would you be able to find that piece? Probably not. The chances of something terrible or fatal happening to you are similarly remote.
And what about honesty? Clearly, kids have heard that adults express doubt over the candidates’ various claims. They likely have heard the candidates themselves each accuse the other of lying and may fear that we’ll end up with a president who isn’t honest. Parents can turn the campaign rhetoric into a teaching opportunity, explaining candidly that politicians don’t always play nicely together in their sandbox. Sometimes winning becomes more important to the candidates than truth telling, and questioning the honesty of their opponents becomes commonplace. By talking thoughtfully about how partisan interests can dominate, parents can help children learn to listen for the information contained within the rhetoric. Focusing on what the candidates are really saying as opposed to how they are saying it, however, doesn’t mean that how they say it doesn’t matter. This is also an opportunity to endorse virtues such as honesty by reminding kids that while the candidates may seem to forget it, the high road is the best road—and that their expectation that the president of the United States be honest is altogether reasonable.
In our survey, we didn’t ask kids for their thoughts about immigration or racial prejudice, which are also weighing heavily on the minds of voters. But as you discuss the campaign with your kids, don’t miss the opportunity to understand what they’ve observed and what they’re thinking about these subjects, too. Encourage perspective swapping, asking kids, for example, “How do you think it feels to be a target of unkind comments?” Talking about ethical dilemmas and letting kids figure out for themselves all the possibilities can be empowering and eye-opening for kids. We adults don’t have to provide all the answers.
But we do need to encourage the conversations, model thoughtful discourse, lean in, and listen deeply.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.