This morning, my three and five-year-old children were cats. They crawled around on the floor as my husband and I caught up on the latest we’d read on the political front. They meowed and asked to be fed their favorite cat food (a.k.a. Fruit Loops).
I’m thankful they are largely too young to feel the stress of the current political climate, but even kids in preschool can feel the stress of a parent or the tension between family members. Elementary age kids are facing differing political views from classmates. Teenagers are trying to find their own political views and voice in the age of social media.
I asked my friends and family on Facebook to tell me how they are talking about the current political climate with their kids, and how they are teaching their children to process opposing views.
My Facebook friends are roughly half conservative and half liberal, so I was hesitant to open up a political can of worms on the topic of kids and politics. But as it turns out, we’re all trying to teach our kids the same things about politics: Dialogue over debate (I’m borrowing this phrase from a teacher friend), relationships over politics, and empowerment over fear.
With those themes in mind, here are 9 tips (brought to you by my smart friends across the political spectrum) for navigating parenting and politics.
1. Prepare your kids to speak up or let go
When I was growing up, I knew who my parents were voting for and I knew their political opinions, and I knew I was not to share those opinions outside of the house.
It’s easy to say, "Your friends don’t need to know who your parents are voting for."
What’s harder is when politics and social justice issues collide. We want to teach our kids to stand up for others. We want to teach them to stand up for their religious beliefs and for themselves. It’s tough when there are different points of view of what that means politically.
A friend of mine tells her second grade daughter, "As long as your classmates aren’t hurting you or someone else, it’s okay for them to think differently than you."
Another friend recommends giving a perspective kids can relate to. "You like bell peppers and some of your friends don’t. It doesn’t mean you should stop liking bell peppers or your friends."
If your kids aren’t sure how to respond to a different point of view, tell them they don’t have to respond at all. You can help them sort it out later.
2. Present the "other" side
Young children believe everything we say to be the absolute truth. But as you know, what’s absolutely true in your house may not be what is absolutely true in a classmate’s house.
When discussing almost any subject, one of my friends tells her kids "everyone might have different beliefs".
Even on matters that seem very obvious to you morally or legally, make sure your kids are armed with the knowledge that not everyone agrees. This way, they won’t be blindsided on the playground by a child who believes a different way.
Learning that there is an opposing view from someone other than a parent can be confusing and embarrassing to kids.
3. Take a page from your child’s political playbook
I was asking a friend how he handles politics with his eight-year-old and he responded, "Our kids are mentally where we want to be."
Children don’t care what political party you align with. They don’t care if you’re from a red state or a blue state (though they like those colors). They definitely do not care who you voted for. If you are kind, they accept you.
Let’s let them stay in that zone for as long as possible and join them there.
4. Give your older kids access to unbiased news sources
A friend of mine with two teenagers keeps a current copy of Time magazine on the coffee table. A teacher friend of mine has her class watch CNN Student News regularly.
One of the most important things we can teach our kids is how to search for the truth on their own. Teach them how to spot fake or biased news sources, and how social media filters news toward our existing opinions.
Encourage your kids to research and develop their own political views outside of yours and outside of their social circle.
5. Teach kids how our government works
There is a lot about politics we can’t control, but what we can control is how much we know about how our political system works.
One friend wisely suggested we teach our kids about the Electoral College, primary elections, the branches of government, and the balance of power. Many of my friends said they believe it’s important to show their kids political activism.
Take your kids with you to vote (especially for local elections which hit closer to home) and to town hall meetings. Call your representatives at the federal, state or local level, and let your kids hear you express your opinion.
Empower your kids with knowledge about the government and the part they play in it.
6. Teach your teens the dangers of talking politics on social media
Just last week a real estate agent (and father of two) was in the news for getting fired over a particular political tweet.
In addition to the obvious pitfalls of discussing anything on social media (i.e. not being able to read intention or arguing with strangers), universities and employers now look to social media to get a better sense of their applicants.
Teen life is hard enough without having a political post keep your child from something he wants and deserves. Plus, our views evolve, and having a permanent and public record of our feelings at sixteen sounds like a form of torture. Before your teen posts anything on social media, have them consider these pre-communication questions by Deepak Chopra: "Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?"
7. Set boundaries with family and friends
My smart sister-in-law has a strict "no politics" policy during family get-togethers. Don’t be afraid to set strict "no political discussions" boundaries when your kids are present (or any time your sanity is at stake).
And, more importantly, set boundaries between those you love and politics. Prioritize relationships and shared histories over wanting to change political views.
If this is difficult to do, focus on your kids. Think about how your family and friends love your kids, and how you love their kids. Think about who would be there if you needed help tomorrow.
After the election, I was feeling on edge. Half of my Facebook friends are conservative and half are liberal. I was getting it from both sides.
Then my daughter ended up in the hospital with pneumonia for three nights. Friends from all sides of the political spectrum sent love and support our way.
Nothing else mattered.
8. Don’t let politics affect the time you have with your kids
Parenting author, Ann Douglas says there’s a "difference between being immersed and being informed." That struck a chord with me.
Don’t watch the news or read about politics instead of spending time in front of your kids. Don’t fall down a social media political rabbit hole while your kids are playing in front of you. Instead, join them.
Use your kids as a distraction from the larger issues of the world. Be present, play, have fun.
9. Finally, be the example
One of my friends said it best. "Relationships are more important than being right."
If your child had a friend over and they couldn’t agree on what game to play, how would you want them to handle their differences?
Your answer is probably something like listen, stay calm, be polite, not something like get frustrated, call each other names, or end the friendship over the dispute.
We can say whatever we want, but it’s our actions that speak the loudest to our kids. When you talk politics, be a good example for your kids, whether they are watching or not.