Raising Politically Engaged Kids: How to Talk to Children About Politics and Government

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Our country’s political system is a complicated, confusing, sometimes corrupt and often confounding system that is hard to understand, even for adults. Which is definitely a problem in its own way — the fact that some voting-age adults don’t know their political rights and don’t understand the political system is hugely concerning. But it’s also concerning because parents and adults who don’t understand politics will most certainly not be able to or are not willing to discuss politics with their kids. And as we all know, our children are the future of this nation. In order for any good to come out of this chaotic, unstable, divisive reality we are all living through, our children need to be educated, informed and empowered to not only understand politics, but also take action once they are old enough.

The good news is that the solution is somewhat simple: Start talking. Talk to your kids about politics. Involve them in your political actions. Teach them what you know. Learn together. But how? When? At what age? With what language? How much detail is too much detail? 

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to explaining politics to children. And as parents, we’re all constantly worried that we are doing the wrong thing, or that we aren’t doing enough to arm our kids with the tools they need for success in life. We all want our children to be happy, healthy, safe, smart and ready to tackle whatever obstacles may come their way. And now, more than ever, giving them a thorough (yet appropriate) education on the U.S. political system and government is crucial not only for their generation, but for the entire nation. With the 2020 presidential election just months away, and our country facing multiple crises at once — a pandemic, an economic crisis, a racial divide, a crisis of conscience — ensuring that we all are engaged and informed about politics is essential.

We’ve all heard the warnings that certain topics are off limits at the dinner table, namely religion, money and politics. But screw that. Talk about politics at dinner. Talk to your friends. Talk to your kids. Read articles. Watch the news. Do your research. Get informed. Get passionate. Get active. The future of our country quite literally depends on it.

So, let’s talk about talking to our kids about politics. Don’t worry if you are in a state of perpetual confusion about how and when to address this very confusing and overwhelming topic with your offspring. We’ve all been there; we’re all knee deep in tough decisions and tougher conversations that we’re forced to have with our kids earlier than we ever intended. But here we all are.

Experts agree that we need to talk to our kids about politics from a young age. We need to teach them early on about why politics matter, why our vote counts and is crucial (more than ever) and how politics affects us all. We need to give them facts and figures, and arm them with the tools they need so they can make sound decisions as they grow older and have influence and voting rights. It all starts with a conversation, and it needs to happen now.

It’s never too early to discuss politics

According to Dr. Allison Mark, a Miami-based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, adolescents, adults and families, it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about politics. “I think we can begin the conversation as soon as our children can observe something in the home or in their school that may be political in nature,” she explains. And that doesn’t mean they have to be learning about government in school or participating in school elections. Any time a child is exposed to some element of the political process, even if they don’t know how to verbally explain what they are experiencing, it is a good time to start the conversation. “This may be sooner than their language development would suggest. Our children internalize much more information from their external world than we think,” explains Mark.  

Use language they’ll understand, and put it in context

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to not only talking about politics, but also explaining it to kids, considering all the complexities and complicated concepts. Even adults struggle to fully understand the political process and the gravity of their involvement. 

According to Mark, when it comes to talking to kids about government and the upcoming election, it’s best to start simple. “I like to always use simple, honest language with children. Perhaps the younger children need a more concrete, less abstract explanation of the political process.” What does that mean exactly? It means to give examples and be specific, to the point, but not to go into too much detail at once. 

Instead of talking about political parties, debates, policy stances and voter issues “it might be as simple as explaining that different people can think and feel differently about the very same thing,” she suggests. “Or as they get older, perhaps bringing them along to vote with you can be a valuable learning experience. Encourage them to ask questions and again, explain the process in simple age-appropriate honest language. When we encourage children to ask questions it is also vital that parents provide a safe space to respond.”

Shift your speaking from “me” to “we”

It might feel like politics are exclusively an “adult” topic or an experience that only impacts grownups, but in reality, what happens in the upcoming election can and will affect the entire country for generations to come. So, as you discuss politics with your kids, try to stay away from using “me” and start addressing political decisions with “we” so that your children understand that this process matters for them too. According to Peggy Drexler Ph.D. in Psychology Today, “talking to kids about politics helps them understand the world and their place in it, and starts to shift their thinking from “me” to “we.” Which is why it’s important to discuss with kids, even those too young to yet understand all the specific policy points or platforms, why politics matters; why it matters who’s in charge, and why they should care.”

Lead by example

Yes, talking about politics is essential, and giving your kids an age-appropriate, yet thorough, explanation of politics and the election is important. But sometimes kids learn better through experiential explanations rather than verbal definitions. Actually show them what the political process is all about and lead by example. Dr. Mark suggests early exposure and first-hand experience is key. “I think we can bring young children to the voting booths. Encourage questions, and explain to them that the votes are counted kind of like putting marbles in a big jar, and whoever has the most marbles is the winner (we should start simple in that way).” 

As kids get older, you can break down the decision-making process a bit more, and involve them in your thought process as you consider various voter issues and decide which candidate’s policies are more in line with your goals and values. Let them help you as you prepare to vote so that they can see, hear, feel and understand how and why each vote matters. If you involve them from a young age they’ll feel invested in the process and grow up to be engaged and informed citizens. 

When in doubt, read together

If you’re not sure how to explain government and the political process, or if you’re worried your kids won’t want to have that conversation with you, you can always turn to literature to help you out. After all, reading together is one of the most valuable ways to spend time with your kids and learn together, and it allows you to dive into important information in language they will understand. This list of 25 U.S. government books for kids is a great place to start, with everything from picture books to more detailed overviews of our roles as U.S. citizens.

Let your kids voice their own opinions 

As with all other topics you will inevitably discuss with your children, it’s important not to only tell them the facts, but also let them engage, let them ask questions, and let them form their own opinions along the way. Dr. Mark stresses that above all else, the single most important thing a parent can do to teach his or her children about the significance of politics is to “allow them to make up their own minds about who they support.” Part of raising children and allowing them to become independent people who will contribute to society is to give them freedom to express themselves from a young age. 

“I think a lot of parents teach politics in such a way that only aligns with their own political beliefs,” says Mark. As challenging as it may be, “it is important to give our children the information while also providing a judgment free space to feel support of whomever their worldview is most aligned.”