Kids are interested in talking about the election and politics. Researchers tell us this. And a lot of parents are reluctant to do so in a way that’s meaningful, and that can help kids understand what it means to be a thoughtful, engaged citizen.
Green: Parent friends of mine have told me their kids are experiencing this political period with a lot of intensity. I’ve heard stories of kids being really scared of Donald Trump, for example, and what would happen if Trump were elected or reelected president.
I wonder if that’s something you’ve dealt with at Highlights—political weight being put on kids who are maybe too young to understand it.
Cully: Yes. We have seen that. In fact, we had a letter from a child who said exactly what you just said: that they were concerned about Donald Trump being elected.
Kids are sponges. And what they do is pick up and absorb the strong emotions in the adults around them. So if the adults around them are really intensely talking about the election, if they are angry, if they are expressing extreme disappointment or despair, kids are picking that up.
It’s also important to remember that kids can also pick up emotions like calm and hope and optimism and empathy. Many of these lessons are caught, rather than taught.
Green: Is it possible to help kids not internalize one of the big messages of our era: that people who have different political views are the enemy?
If you have ideas about how to do this generally, you could very well be president of the United States, because I’m not sure anyone has a very good answer. But anyways: How should parents even begin to grapple with that?
Cully: The acrimony that surrounds this election and postelection period requires parents to have conversations with kids about how to live with people with whom we disagree, and how to talk to those people with kindness and respect. There are many different views of the world, and most of those perspectives deserve respect. There are a few exceptions, like QAnon, for example. But it’s really valuable for kids to realize that even when we don’t see things the same way, we can still usually find common ground.
Green: But there are also lines to teach kids about, right? The thing I have in mind is disinformation: helping kids discern what’s factual and truthful and reliable as a source, versus conspiracy theories. In recent years, that kind of disinformation has been furthered by people at the highest level of government.
Cully: I think parents can talk to kids about how they determine whether a news source is reliable. And parents can talk about why they’ve selected one candidate, or why they like one politician better than another. By doing that, they show kids how empowering voting can be.
I think this year, too, parents need to address the integrity of our voting process. They can help their kids fact-check some of the unfounded claims that are being made. Certainly, they should point to the poll workers—helpers, in Mister Rogers’s parlance—who helped ensure a fair and honest election.