September 7, 2016

How to talk to children about 2016 election, civility, fear-mongering and responsible citizenship

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Every presidential election is a teachable moment, but the 2016 election will offer parents more than just opportunities to talk about democracy and responsible citizenship, says a Purdue University child development expert.

"What makes this election different is that it has been nasty and unfiltered, and many adults are confused and emotional themselves, so it can be hard to help kids understand these issues and personalities," says Judith Myers-Walls, professor emeritus of child development. "Parents should remember the election is not a single event, but rather an ongoing season that can be stressful and confusing for children. To understand any current event, children should have an idea of what is happening, who is involved, where it is happening and its significant elements."

Here are some parent tips from Myers-Walls:

* The election is everywhere. Children can easily pick up political slogans, which are often catchy soundbites. The topic also is likely being discussed by their peers and at school. Discussing the election at the dinner table each night helps reinforce that it is OK to talk about and ask questions. A balance is healthy for children so spend time talking about other stuff, too.

* Children need accurate election-related vocabulary. Give children words to help them communicate about what they believe. Our vocabulary can be difficult. For example, the differences between Democratic party and democracy or Republican party and a republic. If parents don't talk to them children will piece things together from peers, media, and their own imagination. Listen to what children are talking about. Correct any misunderstandings. It's OK to say, "I don't know that, let's see if we can find an answer together." This teaches them how to gather information. It also reminds them it is OK to ask parents questions.

* Hearing about building a wall can be very concrete but confusing, especially for younger children. Children are afraid for themselves and other kids, especially when it comes to immigration and deportation. "Is there a way to talk about building bridges to help our friends?"

* Fear. Explain to children that fear-mongering is an election strategy. "We don't know what will happen if either candidate is elected, but each side has an opinion." The prediction of doom can be scary to children.

* Making history. Children may not be voting, but this election will be special to them, too. Whoever wins, the election is already a historical event, and something they will want to remember. This is something they will look back on, remember and say, "When I was a kid …"

* Children learn by example. It's important for parents to monitor their actions. "How do you react when you hear a comment? Do you roll your eyes or scoff? Be aware that your kids will pick up on this. Instead, think about what values you want to teach them. Explain how you are going to make decisions in this election season. 'What is really important to me about someone who serves as president is …'" This helps children understand decision-making in the election.

* Media exposure and media literacy. It's easier to control media exposure with younger kids, but they are more likely to misunderstand slogans. Children comprehend things literally. During the Gulf War, children found the slogan "No Blood for Oil" confusing. Parents should pay attention to children's misunderstandings and emotions. When kids are exposed to media, be there with them to help them understand it. When you see a political commercial or debate, questions to ask include "Who do you think they are trying to reach?" "Are they negative?" "What are they really saying?" or "Do they mention their political party affiliation?"

* Use social media responsibly. Ask older children, "Have you received any messages from your friends about the election?" Talk about examples where people have said things over social media that are not well thought out. Teach children to never send a text message or post something without counting to 10 or reading it out loud. It's also important to double check who the message is being sent to.

* Accepting differences and disagreeing. Help children learn a realistic way to deal with the world and disagreement. Saying "I can't hang out with you anymore" is not fair to children. A family member or friend voting for the other candidate can explain why they feel that way, so the child can learn how to listen to their friends and respect differences. Remind them it is OK to not agree on everything. Use other examples, such as favorite sports teams, to help them practice this skill beyond politics. Also, help them understand when it is best to step away from the discussion or how to change the topic.

*Resource to help parents: The League of Women Voters is a good resource. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Judith Myers-Walls,

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