Like a lot of Americans, watching the events of this current election cycle unfold has, on numerous occasions, left me shaking my head. Dirty politics are nothing new, of course; but this election seems, at times, to be downright unclean.
As a parent of three children—Elias, 7; Adeline, 4; and Ezra, 15 months—I spent the early part of this current primary season trying to shelter my kids from as much of this election as possible. And at the time, I not only thought I was doing a good job of shielding them from the political drama, I believed I was doing the right thing, too.
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But on the morning after the Iowa Caucus, as I watched a panel of CNN pundits wax political about Iowan voters, my 7-year-old pranced happily into the living room. Before I could grab the remote and switch the channel, Elias looked at the TV and then at me and said, "Daddy, is he going to be our president?"
As it turns out, Elias and some of his buddies at school had been chatting about the election behind my back, discussing who their parents (and consequently, they) wanted their next president to be.
"Nobody in my class likes him. I don't want him to be our president."
Though I agreed with his sentiment, in an effort to engage my son, I asked him why he was so vehemently against [that guy] being president.
"Uh," he said, with a toothy grin spreading across his face, "I don't know."
And that's when I realized that my first parental inclination—the one that led me to shelter my kids from the ugliness of this year's election hoopla—was wrong. Since that conversation, I've made a point to talk with Elias (and to a smaller degree, Adeline) about this election and why our participation in politics matters.
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Here are five reasons why I think all of us should be talking to our kids about this election:
1. Kids are already talking about it.
Chances are, our kids are already having big and small discussions about the election. Whether their conversations are sparked by what they're learning in the classroom or they're happening more organically around the lunch table, kids often know and/or pick up on far more than what we realize. "Whether your child is 6 or 16, parents absolutely must discuss political issues with them [because] kids have ears and are very aware of issues, sometimes more so than their parents because of greater skill with the Internet and social media," Al Carroll, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College, tells Parenting.com. He adds that engaging our kids with information and stories regarding age-appropriate topics help children navigate between what is fact and what is fiction.
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2. Children learn by participation.
While schools will attempt to teach our kids the basic facts about how Americans choose a president, by letting them become a part of our political activities, we parents have the ability to showcase why our country's election processes make a difference. In other words, when we let our kids join us in our political process, they're not only learning the facts about how elections work, but those facts start to become personal because they're experiencing them with us.
"We believe firmly in educating our kids about the election process, especially during this election,Kelley Kitley, a psychotherapist and mom-of-four, all under the age of 10, tells Parenting.com Which is why Kitley doesn't just talk civics with her kids, she invites them to be a part of her political story. "We watch the debates together, and they go with me to the voting booth."
Professor Carroll believes it's important for kids to see and learn how elections affect their lives: "Politics affects them as much as adults. Kids certainly are impacted if a parent is in the military or if a parent loses a job or is in danger of doing so."
Learning firsthand, outside of the classroom, helps kids realize not only the personal nature of politics but teaches them why it's important for us as citizens to engage in the political process.
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3. Information can ease kids' fears and concerns.
Helping our kids navigate this year's election is crucial, says Kitley, "[Because] there's so much fear in our society—there's lots of people protesting, and of course, there's Trump."
As we all know, politically charged topics often induce fear and worry in our kids, especially young children who often only pick up on soundbites or pay attention to small parts of a conversation. What they don't know or don't understand can cause unnecessary worry. Offering our kids context to an issue can go a long way toward helping them process and learn about important issues of our time without becoming anxious or afraid.
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4. Kids need to learn how to disagree respectfully.
Over and over again during this election, we've watched candidates showcase poor taste in how they communicate with each other, especially when engaging in a heated disagreement.
"I try to use those instances to talk to my kids about how we as people should disagree," Micah Smart, a stay-at-home father-of-three, tells Parenting.com. Smart says he openly tells his kids that it's not wrong to disagree with other people but how we disagree that matters.
"My hope," says Smart, "is that my kids will be passionate about their opinions and their values, but that most importantly, that they will learn how to disagree well."
"And we can't just talk about disagreeing with respect; we have to emulate it, too," he adds.
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5. Politics isn't just about you and me, it's about other people, too.
Politics isn't only about how a government or law affects us; it's also about how they affect other people, those we know and see every day and others that we will never meet.
A month or so ago, Elias asked me why I was voting for a particular candidate. "Well," I said, "because I believe in helping people who are in difficult situations. And I believe that all people are equal and should be treated as such." While I was prepared to go on and on, I could see that that was all his 7-year-old brain wanted to hear for now.
But that conversation was the beginning of a story that I will continue to tell my son, not because I want to indoctrinate him, but because I want him to know that our politics—how we vote and what we stand for or against—doesn't merely affect us, but it can also have positive and adverse effects on other people, too.