Talking to our kids about politics through the past four years has been no easy feat. These have not been normal political times. We, as a people, have shouted more than we’ve debated—and the arguments have been less about policy than about our very morals and values. Teaching our kids simple lessons about citizenship—and all its rights and duties—might have felt trite when it seemed like democracy itself was at stake, even as recently as a week ago.
Our kids saw the images of Americans storming their own Capitol Building, and they saw the expressions on our faces as we watched, too. With a news cycle almost entirely devoted to how divided we are and how fundamentally we disagree (and even dislike each other), it’s challenging to raise kids who are aware of what’s happening without also thrusting our own big emotions onto them.
Depending on your political views, you might be supremely bummed out or flying high on hope today. But before you go on a tirade or a victory lap (or both), remember that our kids are absorbing our every word.
We can teach our kids grace in politics the same way we teach them to be gracious winners and losers when they play a board game or a team sport. I realize the political stakes in America are a lot higher than, say, a middle school basketball game, but how we model grace in situations with big implications also informs how one should handle the little wins and losses, too. (If you need to gripe and be decidedly ungracious, just save it for when they’re in bed.)
Remember that emotions can be high where politics are involved, especially right now, and our kids have a way of absorbing ours. We can feel hopeful or disappointed, but when we venture into smugness or full-blown anger, kids take notice. They won’t simply mirror our political views as they grow older; they’re likely to mirror our attitudes about politics, too. We want them to be informed and involved without also being bitter or vindictive.
Highlight the good
Whether or not the country is now being led by people of your choosing—and whether or not the Supreme Court is filled with judges whose values align with your own—today represents a political reset button for all of us. The past four years, and particularly the last year, have been a tumultuous time unlike any we’ve experienced. Our kids have almost certainly picked up on that.
If we’ve been less than stellar about how we’ve talked about these issues around our kids, today can be a chance for us to take a deep breath and look forward. Find something positive, something hopeful to focus on. Maybe you want to focus on messages of unity, or the significance of watching the first female vice president of color take office. You can also use this moment to think ahead to ways your family can advocate for issues that are important to you going forward, either on a national level or within your own community.
Check in with them
Kids are often absorbing what is happening around them more than we think they are. They may be talking about politics with their teachers, classmates, and friends; they probably have questions about what is happening in the country right now or opinions of their own. Tara Conley, a media researcher at Montclair State University, tells NPR that adults should choose a quiet moment to check in with their kids, maybe at the dinner table or bedtime:
The idea, she says, is to allow kids to “ask questions about what they’re seeing, how they’re feeling and what do they think.” In other words: Give kids a safe space to reflect and share. And give yourself a chance to dispel any scary rumors or misinformation they may have come across.
This can be a moment to listen and reassure.
This article was originally published in 2018 and updated on Jan. 20, 2021 to reflect current context and information.