Should We Talk to Our Kids About Politics?

by Jen Holman


When it comes to kids, the adage “all politics is local” is definitely true. And when they come home repeating views heard at school or a friend’s house, it can sometimes hit a little too close to home. Last November, my middle child came home crying after hearing a presidential candidate was going to take away Oreo cookies. Oreo cookies!

He’s 5, so concern about a favorite food instead of the economy or foreign policy is understandable. But what about older kids? Their little ears home in on adult conversations and news segments. In hot political climates, how do we talk to them about what they hear? How do we assure them they are safe, and help discern the truth in a world full of “alternative facts?” Should we parents discuss politics and news with our kids, or should we shield them from it entirely?

Jen and her daughter at the Little rock Women's March.

Jen and her daughter at the Little rock Women's March.

In my house, the kids seem to hear everything, especially the things they aren’t supposed to. Maybe in generations past, children were excluded from “grown-up” conversations, but now, with ever-present access to television and social media, keeping them in the dark is nearly impossible. Kids ask questions. Besides blatantly ignoring answers, it’s what they do best. Why? Yeah, but why? Whyyyy? It’s so easy to say, “Don’t worry about that now,” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” But, parenting experts say, kids do worry. They are influenced by us, by their friends, by the news and even by advertising. They may not understand some of the things they’ve heard (Oreo import ban), and have questions. And as much as we would like them to, worries and concerns don’t just disappear.

What should we do, then, with alert kids who need answers to their questions about the world around them? The short answer: talk to them. But how? How much is too much? What if we don’t have all the answers? What if they disagree with us?

This seems a good time to offer a disclaimer: I’m no parenting expert or child psychologist. But I am a parent of three kids in middle America. I stumble my way over Legos and through parenting every day. It helps to talk about our struggles, to know we are not alone. “It takes a village,” you know.

One suggestion I have read to help kids understand the difficult topics they encounter is to talk about issues rather than politics. More meaningful discussions can come from fleshing out issues than name-calling and generalizations. Who knows, we parents might even learn something along the way.

We know too well that kids parrot what they see and hear, so it’s important for us to set the tone. My kids are very far from angels, and I definitely slip up, but we do talk a lot about kindness and empathy and respect.

Another suggestion is to make laws and issues relatable to kids’ lives—a local angle. Talk on the news about national public education can inspire discussions about central Arkansas schools. Travel bans seem to me an excellent catalyst for lessons on loving our neighbors.

Of course, attention span and comprehension will vary. Experts say to offer reassurance of specific fears and answer questions as best you can, and then let kids lead discussions. We can gauge how much detail to offer by reading their interest levels—if they change the subject or stop listening, let it go.

In my house, we save the more difficult topics for when the kids are out of earshot. They tend to think in black and white. They can’t understand nuances, and issues that have no moral black and white are confusing and distressing.

I love the spirit and urgency with which kids approach life’s problems. If they don’t like the way something’s done, they want to change it. Now. That same Oreo-deprived child raced breathless into the kitchen a few months back. “Elephants are dying! Mom, we have to do something right now. Right now!” A fundraising plea on an animal or Discovery Channel had broken his little heart. I was speechless for a moment. Navigating around squashing his enthusiasm and exposing him to cynicism was difficult, I admit it.

So what can kids do if they resolve to change the world? What can families do? The best way to change something, of course, is to get involved. Does that mean we’re moving to Africa to combat poaching? Ah, no. But I tried to make it relatable to his life, to bring it closer to home. We talked about being kind to pets and supporting local animal shelters.

Though we haven’t tried it yet, I do know some families who hold family meetings about hot issues or special concerns. It makes the kids feel involved and that they have a say in what’s going on around them. Family votes help them understand the democratic process and, just maybe, worry less.

This parenting thing is hard, right? Sometimes I envy the days before television and internet. But, I truly believe we are raising well-informed and compassionate kids who absolutely have the power to make the world a better place. Until they do, though, we can do our part to help them understand the world’s challenges, the hard topics, and the best way to make a difference.

Jen Holman is determined to be a voice of reason in the cacophony of reality TV and mom-judgment-gone-wild. She is often irreverent and frequently imperfect. But she’s happy, by God, and that’s what matters. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im) perfect children.