Teaching Kids About the Presidential Election

BlogHer Original Post

Early in the presidential primary season, when the field was still wide open, my nine-year-old son overheard me listening to a talk radio program discussing the various candidates. We had discussed the general set-up of a primary, but at this point, we hadn’t gone into great depth over the individual candidates.

But my boy wanted to know more.

“Tell me something about each of the guys running,” he said. (Never under-estimate the ability of a child to keep you on your toes.)

“They aren’t just guys,” I said, explaining to him about Hillary. I then went through each of the candidates of both parties, trying to tell him a little fact I thought he’d especially find interesting.

“Mitt Romney used to be in charge of the Olympics,” I said.

“Cool!” was his response. “It would be great to have a president who’s an athlete!” I let that one slide.

“Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York City,” I went on.

"Rudy Giuliani? That sounds like another girl name,” he said.

We continued through the list, and when I was finished, my son wanted to know who I was voting for. I told him I’d vote Republican, but I was still undecided which one.

“I think you should vote for the guy who was the soldier. He sounds very brave,” Stephen offered. I told him I was considering it.

It was the first of many discussions our family has had this political season. This is the first presidential election in which I’ve had kids old enough to understand what is going on. The political junkie in me is having a ball sharing the experience with my children, teaching them about the mechanics of an election.

But I’m also seeing presidential politics in a different light—through my kids’ eyes. The dirtiness of modern American politics looks even dirtier when you try to put it in terms a child can understand. More than once, we’ve simply turned the pundit-filled radio or TV off when the kids come in to the room.

These are a few of the guiding principles I’m following in talking with my kids this political season:

Involve them at every level. We’re discussing the whole process openly. The kids have watched bits of significant speeches from numerous candidates. We’ll take them with us to vote, and we’ll even try to get them to watch a few election returns with us (though I’m fully aware it will help if I bribe them with cheese dip). It’s interesting and refreshing to ask our kids on feedback about different issues and candidates, even though they know Mom and Dad are the ultimate decision-makers. Kids Voting USA has some excellent resources for parents, as does Kids Turn Central.

Consider what they’re hearing at school. Kids talk about what they hear adults say. They just do. And sometimes they don’t get their stories straight. As with all important topics, I want to be sure my kids learn the important lessons from my husband and me--not on the playground. The Barack Obama/Jeremiah Wright story is a good example: I suspected this might be discussed at school, so I pre-emptively explained in simple, non-inflammatory terms what was going on.

Treat the other side fairly. Speaking respectfully of others is a priority in our home, and a presidential election doesn’t offer an exemption. We are frank with our children about what we believe—and why—and they know who we're supporting (incidentally, we decided on the "brave soldier" after all). But we would never bash the people for whom we do not vote. Our own family has people at every conceivable spot on the political spectrum, and we’ve used that fact to explain to our kids that good people can disagree about politics, and still like each other!

With months to go in the election, I suspect there are many “teachable moments” ahead. We’ll have many chances to teach our kids about democracy, courage, courtesy, hard work and respect. I can hardly wait.

Related blog posts, articles and resources:

Teaching Children About Politics, by Steph Hicks at HubPages

Kids and Politics, by Robin's Blue Skies

Kids Love Campaign 2008, by MSNBC

Kids and Politics, in the First-In-the-Nation Primary, by UncharterdParent

Parents are Party-Training Kids, by CNN

Kids and Politics, by Simple Chaos

Shannon Lowe is a Mommy/Family contributing editor at BlogHer, and she also writes at Rocks In My Dryer.

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