How to Keep Your Kids Out of the Culture War

Even children are feeling the anxiety of the 2020 political season.

An illustration featuring "Highlights" magazine
Highlights / The Atlantic

For $18, fans of President Donald Trump can purchase a onesie for their three-month-old from his campaign website that declares I cry less than a Democrat. Primary, the children’s clothing company, provided instructions on its website for a DIY Ruth Bader Ginsburg Halloween costume. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America sell baby apparel, and Etsy, where even the most absurd crafting projects find a home, offers an embroidered bib with the slogan Sorry for the spitup. I thought I saw Joe Biden.

Maybe this is messed up. Theoretically, politics is the process we use to determine how we want to be governed. Instead, it’s become a game of identity, in which children are recruited at a young age to join their parents’ tribe and blow raspberries at the other side. Many parents feel an intense attachment to their children’s political identities: 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married someone from the opposite political party, a 2019 survey from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found. This gulf between the parties has widened in 2020, when students around the country have been stuck at home or cycling in and out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a concrete way, November’s election really did seem to be about the future of America’s kids.

Highlights for Children is a publishing company whose eponymous flagship magazine was founded in 1946. It has now expanded into a kids’-content empire, including book clubs and map sets and puzzles. You’d think a brand like this would want to stay as far away from politics as possible. But Christine French Cully, the editor in chief and chief purpose officer—a title that shows how truly corporate the enterprise is—disagrees. “Kids are interested in talking about the election and politics,” she told me. But “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.”

Chances are that parents who dress their kid in an RBG costume are not encouraging her to go out and make Republican friends. But maybe they should. I spoke with Cully about the lessons parents should be teaching their children in this fraught political period, and how even a wholesome magazine like Highlights couldn’t avoid the culture wars. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Green: When you were parenting small kids, was there ever a time that was remotely similar to our current period in terms of the intensity around politics?

Christine French Cully: This is an unprecedented time for parents. This has been a year of huge change and uncertainty and divisiveness that I don’t remember seeing, to this extent, ever before. I think everybody’s mental well-being has suffered. And I’m not sure the bar has ever been set so low when it comes to civil discourse and appropriate behaviors.

Green: What, in particular, have you heard from parents and kids as they’ve struggled through this era? What are the challenges that come up a lot?

Cully: Kids are watching us. They are watching and listening to us, and they are learning from us. Often what they see playing out on television and in their families and communities is also playing out in their worlds, with friends and classmates.

We were reminded of this when we received a letter from a child who self-described as a die-hard Republican, and he asked for help because he was being bullied. His friends were accusing him of being a racist, which he vehemently denied.

Green: I wonder if you find it disconcerting that kids are politicized that way—that at a very young age, they could already be thinking about themselves with such a strong identity. Is that unsettling to you?

Cully: Yes. It’s not unusual, of course, for kids to adopt the political views of their parents, and to assume that their parents are right. We see this in the mock elections kids have in school, things like that. But it is concerning when they’re used as accessories for their parents or used to promote their parents’ candidate, and the important conversations aren’t happening.

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.

Green: Some parents don’t believe this was a free and fair election. They believe there’s been widespread corruption by poll workers. They believe the election was stolen. And this is a message that has been pushed by people in the top levels of government, including the Trump administration.

It strikes me that you’re operating in a point of tension, as the leader of a publication that would love to have a broad audience with as many different kinds of kids as possible. How do you do that dance of encouraging parents to teach their kids the truth when some people who are part of your target audience probably believe things that aren’t true?

Cully: Mmhm. Yes. Well, you’ve put your finger right on it. That is the challenge.

We say what we believe is true. We adhere to our values. And we recognize that not everyone is going to agree. Sometimes, we may lose subscribers. But we can’t dump the whole load on our readers. There are certain things we can talk to them about, and some things we can’t. But we don’t compromise our core values. And those are that we think that everybody is deserving of dignity and respect. We think it’s really important to teach children that all humans are sacred. We think it’s important to teach kids how to think critically. And we want kids to know that the high road is the best road. Because we believe that if we want to create a more optimistic, empathetic world, we have to start with our kids.

Green: So do you have a how-to guide for making a Republican friend or a Democratic friend on the playground?

Cully: That’s a great idea, actually. I think we would talk about listening—that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and you can listen, but you don’t have to agree. You should be prepared to defend your own beliefs with rational thought and facts. And that it’s important to always be kind. You don’t always have to have the last word. People remember how you treat them. And we want kids to be respectful.

Even as I say it, I hear how difficult it is.

Green: In what sense?

Cully: I just think it’s an easy thing to say but a harder thing to do.

But it’s aspirational. I guess that’s it. And for heaven’s sake, let’s be aspirational, all of us.

Green: Do you think that growing up in this particularly polarized, vitriolic, and chaotic era will teach kids bad habits around how to engage in American civic life? Or is there hope that we can encourage our kids to be better than we’ve been, and to take America in a direction that is kinder and more respectful of the dignity of people with different beliefs?

Cully: We can totally teach our kids that we can make a better world. But we have to call out the bad behavior when we see it. We can’t ignore it. Otherwise, we’re going to normalize it. I think we need to tell our kids that it’s highly unusual for a president to refuse to concede and offer support to his successor. We need to help kids understand that politicians say things they shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t condone that kind of behavior—the name-calling, the bullying.

In 2016, we did a survey with kids. We asked, “Do you think you would like to become president of the United States?” And 65 percent of the kids said no, because the job seemed too stressful and difficult. That is concerning to me, in some ways, almost more than the obvious bad behavior. We need to make sure we talk to kids about the importance of civic engagement and public service, so they can see the influence good leaders can have, too.

Green: I envy that you get to spend most of your time talking to earnest kids. I spend most of my time talking to cynical people and politicians.

Cully: The No. 1 thing it’s taught me is that we often underestimate kids’ ability to wrestle with the big, more philosophical ideas. In that survey, we also gave kids a list of character traits, and we asked them which one they thought was most important for a president to have. And the overwhelming answer was honesty.