With the election just a few days away, I have transformed into an absolute and terrible mess of a mother. My kids can sense that I’m vibrating with emotion, and I can sense that it’s freaking them out. Should I be talking to them about the election and about my hopes and fears? Or should I be shielding them from my worries so that they feel safe and grounded?
I spoke with three child psychologists and education researchers about how to talk to your kids about what’s going on politically — and why it’s actually quite important that you do.
First: If you’ve been wary of discussing politics with your children, don’t be.
It’s perfectly acceptable to have political discussions with your children, even if they’re young, said Nancy L. Deutsch, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and the director of Youth-Nex, a center for youth development at U.V.A. Talking about politics can help you communicate your values, she said, which is a good thing.
If you explain to your kids why you’re partial to a particular candidate, for instance, you can discuss the policies that the candidate supports and how they uphold your family’s values. “You might say, ‘In this family, we’ve talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and we believe in racial justice, and here are the things that we think that this candidate will do to promote that,” Dr. Deutsch said.
Likewise, if your child asks why you don’t support a particular candidate, you can give examples of what that person has done to illustrate that he or she does not share your values. Maybe that candidate has been dishonest or has said or done disrespectful things. You can explain that honesty, respect and kindness are important to you.
According to Meagan Patterson, an educational psychologist at the University of Kansas, centering political conversations around values can be a good framework for helping to make seemingly abstract political concepts “more understandable and manageable for kids.”
You might worry that your children won’t want to have these conversations, but some research suggests otherwise. In a 2019 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers interviewed 187 kids ages 5 to 11 who lived in Kansas, Kentucky, Texas and Washington State immediately before and after the 2016 election. More than half of them — 58 percent — said that they cared “a lot” about the election, while another 23 percent said they cared “somewhat.”
Yet in this same study, 68 percent of kids said that their parents had either talked to them about the election “not at all” or “a little bit.” Only 18 percent said that their parents had talked about the election “a lot.” Perhaps as a result, the study authors found, the kids’ knowledge of politics and political candidates was often inaccurate.
“In the same way that we talk about other complex issues, we need to help kids understand the messages and the sound bites that they’re hearing,” said Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky. “They’re interested, but yet there’s gaps in knowledge, and they’re using their own inferences to fill in those gaps.”
Your kids also may be getting skewed information from their peers that needs to be corrected, Dr. Deutsch noted. By talking to them about their misconceptions, you’re not only building their knowledge, but also “modeling critical engagement with information,” she said.
This doesn’t mean you need to sit your children down for a formal lecture on U.S. politics. But at least let them know that you’re there if they have any questions. You don’t have to “totally guide the conversation” or “have all the answers,” Dr. Patterson said. “Give them some space to ask questions, to talk about what they’ve heard from other places.”
You can also introduce independent readers to trusted news sources so that they can evaluate important issues and news themselves (we recently bought my 9-year-old a subscription to The Week Junior, a weekly newsmagazine for kids). For younger children, consider reading books to them that introduce political concepts. Dr. Patterson recommended “Grace for President” by Kelly DiPucchio (which even explains the Electoral College), “One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote” by Bonnie Worth and “Vote!” by Eileen Christelow.
You may also want to point out that both presidential candidates are white men, as a springboard to discussing sexism and racism. Children notice details like this and make inferences from them. When researchers in the 2019 paper asked kids why a woman had never been president, 27 percent said that it was because women lack leadership skills, are unqualified or just don’t want to be president. “We have to replace those explanations with answers about structural sexism and racism,” Dr. Brown said.
As for what to do with your kids on Election Day, it depends on their age and temperament and what you feel comfortable with. Dr. Deutsch and Dr. Patterson usually encourage parents to bring their children with them to vote, though that might not be feasible or safe this year. At the very least, you can talk with your kids about your voting experience.
As for whether to let your kids watch election coverage on TV, that’s a personal decision that depends on your kids, their age, how they might handle the coverage and how you might handle the coverage. It’s fine if your kids see you having big emotions, good or bad. But your children will get cues about how to feel from how you feel, and you don’t want to scare them, Dr. Brown said.
If you’re worried that the outcome of the election might directly harm your family or others who are close to you, make a family safety plan and use it to talk to your kids about how you’ll protect them. Explain what you will do if an adult in the household loses a job, for instance, or if your family will face new legal obstacles under the administration. You might also want to emphasize that the presidency isn’t the only thing that matters and that local and midterm elections also have a big impact, Dr. Patterson said.
Discuss other constructive steps you can take as a family, too, if elections don’t go the way you hope. “Think about how can we turn our anxiety, our sense of not having control over our future, into concrete things we can do now, to make things better in our own way,” Dr. Brown suggested. Maybe you decide to volunteer or give money to organizations that are doing work you support. Or you might brainstorm ways to help members of your community who are struggling.
“Reassure them that we have a plan,” Dr. Brown continued, “and this is what our plan is, and here’s some things we can do that are positive, to help make the world the place we want it to be.”
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health writer and the author of a forthcoming book on raising children.