With the November election today, you can’t read a newspaper, watch television, listen to the radio or peruse social media without encountering political messages. And while many people have expressed exhaustion with the constant bombardment, the election is certainly important. In part, it’s important because we are electing a new president. Equally important, we are choosing representatives, senators, mayors, and judges on the federal, state and local levels, as well as voting on various proposals. Even more important, every election gives us an opening to educate our children about the political process and its attendant issues.
Why talk to your kids about politics? For that, there are several answers.
- Liberty. We live in a country with the freedom to self-govern. We exercise that freedom by being informed and involved in the political process. Children who are comfortable with government, politics, and social and fiscal issues will be involved and informed citizens.
- Self-Interest. The business of government is the peoples’ business, and what is accomplished (or not) in the political arena affects the lives of the people, including the lives of the little people. Does your daughter’s school have enough computers in her classroom? Does your son want to see an expansion to the city’s recreation department? These are issues that are addressed in the political arena.
- Influence. Put quite bluntly: Other people are talking to your kids about politics; shouldn’t you be too? From what kids see on TV to what they hear in their classrooms, there are subtle and not-so-subtle messages reaching your children about government, politics and politicians. When we discuss politics and government with our children, our voices, our values and our beliefs will give them a framework against which to weigh all of the other information they receive.
So that’s the why. Next it’s the how.
How do you talk to your child about politics? The first step is not about talking at all, but about showing. We all know that kids won’t do what we say but rather what they see. For example, we can tell them to eat their vegetables until we are blue in the face, but unless they see us munching carrots and cauliflower the message will never hit home. So show your kids that the political process matters to you. Take them with you when you vote! There is no message so strong on the importance of exercising your right to vote than having your kids see you do it. In every election. For every issue. Remember that while presidential elections get all the attention, the local millage vote has as much impact on your child’s life as, if not more than, who sits in the Oval Office.
And then talk to them. Start with explaining what you do in that voting booth and why it’s important that you do it. When it comes to issues, I recommend being guided by their interests. If your elementary school age child loves tigers, talk about wildlife conservation. If your high schooler bemoans the fact that there is no lacrosse team at school, discuss school finance. Make the discussion of political issues a natural part of family discourse. If your kids see you filling out your tax forms, talk about tax policy. And if they hear about crime on the news, discuss your beliefs about crime and punishment.
Finally, if you encourage a spark of interest in your children, nurture it. Take them to a School Board or City Council meeting. Encourage them to volunteer to help a cause they are passionate about before they are old enough to vote. When my own kids started to show political passion, I sat down with them and watched the West Wing on DVD. It opened up the opportunity to discuss process and positions in a way that held their interest. (And yes, for those of you familiar with both the show and this author, there is a reason my youngest daughter is named CJ.)
So while political fatigue may be setting in, please remember that your little people are looking to you for example and information. The choices you make at the polls affect their lives, but not nearly as much as teaching them to make those choices for themselves.
– Nicole Capozello, Parenting Program volunteer