It’s upon us: the year of over-the-top political ads, contentious debate, outrageous claims, and bad social-media behavior. Parenting through this slog can be challenging—but what if your family could actually relish election season? What if, this year, you used it as a time to equip your kids to know and appreciate the American democratic republic? It’s possible, we promise. And in the process, you might even rediscover the thrill of civic participation, too.
6 strategies for election-wary parents
1. Remember: Knowledge is perspective.
“It’s really important to help our youth to understand the big picture of our government,” says Zach Kennelly, civics teacher at DSST: College View High School in Denver. “A deep understanding of the big institutions that serve our democracy—at the federal, state, and local levels—matters because it’s easy for everyone to get super-myopic [in election season]. It can create this sense of dread or of overwhelming victory.” Teaching kids how democracy works—and how it has worked for more than 240 years in America—“helps us feel hopeful, even if in this moment, the outcome isn’t what we wanted.”
2. Talk about politics at home—in front of the kids.
David Kopel, research director at the Colorado-based Independence Institute and the father of three grown children, and his wife, Deirdre, have divergent views: He’s a Libertarian, and she’s a Democrat. Their family dinners, he says, were often filled with (respectful) debate about all sorts of topics at the forefront of policymaking during George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s presidencies. “When we went to a parent-teacher conference for one of our children, the eighth-grade world history teacher told us, ‘I can tell there’s free speech in your house.’ He went on to say that many kids, when discussing current events, just parrot what they’ve heard at the dinner table, but our child seemed to be selecting from what they knew about multiple sides of an issue,” Kopel remembers. Even if you and your spouse agree on politics (and we’re betting you’re not aligned on everything), try to hold up the opposing view genuinely.
3. Make it personal.
Chances are, your kids will pick up on political disagreement among your extended family: Maybe Grandma voted for Bernie. Maybe Uncle Bob loves Trump. Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action—which advocates for conservative policy positions—teaches his children that despite divided views, “we are a family and we love each other.” This is a powerful reminder, he says, “because often in politics, whoever disagrees with you is your enemy, but that’s untrue. You can disagree with someone and still care for that person very much.” This approach has the added bonus of reducing the angst kids can feel when they witness heated debate during family gatherings.
4. Untangle the positions from the “why.”
Fields, a former teacher, suggests starting with the assumption that many people want the same thing: a prosperous state, for example, or safer communities. “We just have different views on how to get there,” he says. Healthy discussions can come from returning to that shared goal, which is a trick to diffuse tension among loved ones or classmates.
5. Tune in to political ads with your children.
Play an ad from each side of an issue or from all candidates running for a seat. Then ask your kids: Why do you think the candidate used these images, this music, these colors in her ad? What does this ad make you think and feel? How is this ad different from, say, the commercial you just watched for a new toy? How is it similar?
6. Teach your kids to talk to politicians.
Kennelly recommends helping children and teens write to their elected officials: “It’s one thing to understand and know about democracy. It’s another thing to act, and democracy requires the people to act,” he says. And one of the best ways to help kids learn the power of the people is to help them exercise the power they have: speaking up. By the time your child is in middle school, he or she should know how to find elected officials’ contact information. Encourage (or even require!) your child to write a letter to her councilperson or state senator or U.S. Representative—or whomever she chooses—about an issue that matters to her. Better yet, make her practice calling the offices of the men and women who represent her at the city, state, and national levels.
Let History Help
The authors of the recently released Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal remind us: Democracy has always been complicated—and it’s supposed to be.
In their new middle-grade book, authors Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy take a “fly-on-the-wall” approach to covering the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon’s eventual resignation from office in 1974. In a screenplay format and relying heavily on quotes from recordings, the book has a sense of immediacy that can be lost in translation of events in traditional textbooks.
The idea for the book came from Balis’ work as a history teacher at John Jay College in New York, where she noticed that most of her students knew nothing about Watergate. Therein lies the rub, she says, when it comes to equipping young people for civic life. “We have to participate in this political society; the system is predicated on it,” Balis explains. “Active citizenship means voting and paying attention to events, but that doesn’t mean—shouldn’t mean—just events of today.”
Her advice? Turn to history, not just the facts—though she says those are important as the framework for understanding—but also the philosophy behind the facts to help kids understand the tension inherent in democracy. “Right now, for example, a lot of the contentiousness in politics boils down to balancing the three arms of government,” she says, “and [that balance] was meant to be difficult.” (Look at the impeachment of Andrew Johnson for a prime example!)
With children and teens, the long view that history offers is helpful: For example, American women formalized their push for voting rights at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, but the Nineteenth Amendment—granting those rights—wasn’t ratified until 1920. “Those years were filled with disagreement and argument,” Levy says. “Arguments don’t make things hopeless. They’ve been going on since the beginning of government, and not only do we survive them, we need them.”
So, pick a book (such as Bringing Down a President) that illuminates a historical event and start a family book club. Ask your child or teen what surprises him or her. How do the events seem similar to what’s happening in this election cycle? What’s different? With some luck and a little investment of time and intention, you might even come to Levy’s conclusion: “It’s still a wonderful joy, this change of power in America. It’s painful, sometimes, yes, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Resources for Kids
The President of the Jungle by André Rodrigues, Larissa Ribeiro, Paula Desgualdo, and Pedro Markun
The Lion, current king of the jungle, cares only for himself, so the other animals decide it’s time for a new leader, whom they’ll choose by election. They draw up rules for their democracy, and four candidates launch campaigns. The story provides a quick and easy framework for starting a conversation with kids about how republics work.
The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America by Jonah Winter and Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
Together, these titles introduce young readers to some of the people whose minds, ideas, and convictions helped shape American history.
The site covers current events in kid-friendly and age-appropriate ways. Content is divided by grade ranges (K-1 through 5-6), and the stories are an excellent jumping-off point for discussion with children about what’s happening in the world.
This Is Our Constitution: Discover America With a Gold Star Father by Khizr Khan
A Pakistani immigrant to the United States and father of a U.S. Army captain killed in the line of duty in Iraq, Khan covers the Constitution’s content with deep reverence and an approachable tone.
New York Times
The New York Times’ website offers robust lesson plans (that parents can easily implement at home) to help digital natives not be so…digitally naïve. The URL is long and cumbersome, but search “New York Times fake news lesson plans” to find the whole package, entitled “Evaluating Sources in a Post-Truth World.”
This site—a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania—can be a helpful place to practice evaluating the truth in political campaigns and debates.
Editor’s Picks from The Economist podcast
For a balanced and nuanced look at current events, tune in to this podcast with your teen. Because it takes a broad view, you’ll both build some knowledge and understanding of what’s happening outside of America, too.