How to Talk to Kids About Politics

Girl wearing an American flag like a super hero

Election year is here, and from now until November, politics will infiltrate everything from yard signs and commercials to TikToks and Instagram posts. 

As adults, we may be prepared for the onslaught of electrically charged insults and accusations from both sides–or, at the very least, we’re used to it. 

But we can’t expect our kids to be oblivious to the media blitz. Or, unaffected by it. 

So, when the country is awash with opposing views, how do we talk to our children about politics and set an example of civility–especially when politicians themselves are often the ones acting like kids? 

Read on for answers to commonly asked questions and some helpful DOs and DON’Ts… 

How Much Do We Share or Shield Our Kids From in Politics?

Politics, in its most general sense, is a safe subject to discuss with kids. Imparting the importance of voting for what we believe in is essential for a healthy democracy. 

But what is too much? Where do we draw the line between what our kids should and shouldn’t be politically exposed to? 

To protect kids from confusion and angst surrounding politics, it’s important to follow a few communication ground rules with them. 

1. No Name-Calling or Demonizing the Other Side 

The goal is to teach our kids to have a healthy “tolerance for disagreement”–that is, the ability to engage with people who have a different opinion or worldview from their own without becoming defensive or angry. Adopting this attitude of acceptance will guide them through conflict and disagreements the rest of their lives. 

But with politics so polarizing, it’s commonplace to call the other side “crazy” or “extreme.” But the reality is complicated. And because most kids have family members with different political views, they need to understand that both sides deserve equal consideration and respect.   

Not only is demonizing the other side disrespectful, but it can create stress and even fear in children. They may experience anxiety when parents use hyperboles or ultra-negative expressions about what will happen if an opposing candidate wins, for instance. (i.e. “There’s no hope for America if that happens!” or “I’ll move to a different country if they win the election!“)

Name-calling and disparaging the other side also teaches kids that it’s okay to judge and criticize others–as opposed to listening and considering alternative views. 

2. Don’t Say Anything You Wouldn’t Want Repeated to the Teacher

Remember that kids are like parrots and they will likely repeat what you say! If your comments about politicians or hot-button issues would be inappropriate for your child to repeat to the principal or your neighbor, your language is likely too incendiary to use in their presence.   

While it’s normal to harbor strong political feelings, our kids need to know that no politician is 100% “right” or 100% “wrong.” And again, extreme language helps fuel the idea that one side is to be villainized. 

Regardless of our points of view, if we reinforce the importance of intellectual curiosity and keeping an open mind, our kids will understand that garnering facts and evidence is the best way to make informed decisions.

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3. Open Your Mind to Their Open Mind

Analysis tells us that your worldview will likely become your child’s worldview. Pew Research surveyed teens and their families, and in the vast majority of cases, the teens classified themselves as belonging to the same political party as their parents.

It makes sense that young people look to their parents for anchoring in their values, and it’s also natural to hope your child will adopt the same political beliefs you hold dear. 

But, it’s equally important to allow kids room to form their own conclusions. Their convictions, if individually vetted, will be more sincere and strengthen their independence

If your child does land on opposing beliefs, you can applaud yourself for raising a child confident enough to make their own choices. (And, if you’ve been encouraging self-made decisions, you know they haven’t reached their opposing conclusions out of rebellion or spite!)

Talking About Politics–Every Age and Stage 

Elementary-Aged Kids

Five to twelve is the perfect age range to talk to kids about the basics of voting and democracy. Their school curriculum is likely already covering the different branches of government and, of course, famous American presidents. 

At this age, your kids probably don’t understand detailed policy issues, so it’s a good time to keep explanations simple. It’s also a great opportunity to point out the character traits you admire in candidates. Phrases like “she’s a good leader” or “he’s good at bringing people together” teach kids that certain traits are more ideal than others. 

The most important message to convey at this time, however, is that it’s perfectly fine for people to support different candidates–in fact, it’s an essential part of what makes our country so strong! Amy McCready quote imageKeep in mind that misinformation can run high on the school yard, so ask if your child has heard anything about politics or political issues. Then, turn to news sources designed for kids, like Time for Kids, Scholastic Kids Press Corps, and Nightly News Kids Edition with Lester Holt, to break down the issues in age-appropriate terms (while avoiding issues you may not want them exposed to quite yet.)

Middle School 

Around early adolescence, kids are generally mature enough to start watching debates with you and research candidates’ views via credible news sources.  

Around this time, politics may become a topic of conversation among your child’s peers. If those conversations become heated, it’s helpful to arm your child with a “comeback line” they can use to defuse tension–something like, “It’s cool if we don’t always like the same thing–life would be boring if we didn’t have choices. It’s the same type of language that would shut down a bullying taunt, because it refuses to engage. 

It’s also important to teach kids that they don’t have to engage in political debates if they don’t want to. Political opinions are something they have a right to keep private if they choose. After all, isn’t that why we vote privately in a voting booth?

High School   

By the time kids enter high school, they’re getting closer to voting age. Now is the time to keep them engaged in the entirety of the election process. Encourage them to watch debates, monitor polls, and follow candidates from both parties on trusted sources. (Remind them that social media isn’t always a reliable source of news, and to be careful what they share.) 

Most crucially, though, is to empower your kids to think outside party lines and research the issues that matter most to them. It could be the environment, a strong economy, or school safety…but the more passionate they are about the issues, the easier it will be to get them involved and to objectively scrutinize the information surrounding those issues. 

When Parents Are On Different Sides of the Political Aisle

If you and your partner have different political opinions, you are not alone! The great thing for your kids to see is that despite your different political views, you are choosing to be in a relationship with one another. It further affirms the fact that you can love anyone from the other side of the political spectrum. Your marriage/relationship alone proves this point and exemplifies a healthy tolerance for disagreement.

If you are divorced from your child’s other parent, it’s once again important not to demonize any difference in opinion. Respect for, or at least impartiality to their contrasting opinions, is key. 

Above all, we don’t want kids to feel pressure to choose a side. Instead, we want to give kids permission to make up their own minds by encouraging them to learn everything they can about the political platforms. 

There’s a reason the voting age is 18 and not 13, right? Kids don’t have to have it all figured out just yet. Focus on the education process, the power of an informed democracy, and helping them engage in an age-appropriate way. 

YIKES!! When Kids Ask About Political Issues That You Aren’t Comfortable Talking About

Research shows that kids as young as five usually know about current events; but they get a fair amount of the information wrong. In addition, most kids ages 11-12 have a smartphone, so they’re most likely accessing the internet outside your home. 

When your child raises a topic that makes you squirm…it’s important to first

find out what your child already knows about that issue. Ask open-ended questions like “What have you heard about this topic” or “Do you know what that word means?”

Be as factual as possible and keep things age-appropriate. This may mean leaving out certain unnecessary details while maintaining transparency. 

Remember, even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s best that kids learn about issues from you so you can convey accurate information in-line with your family values. The longer we wait to have these conversations, the likelier they’ll hear about politics in a convoluted, misinformed way.  

When Politicians Verbally Attack Each Other (and Blatantly Lie)

Sometimes, it can be downright difficult to find characteristics in politicians we admire. 

We wouldn’t want our kids behaving on the playground the way many candidates typically do: demeaning each other, interrupting, name-calling. 

This goes back to the fact the politicians are never 100% wrong or right. They are imperfect humans. 

These are scenarios we can use to prompt thoughtful questions, like, “How do you feel watching that? How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of that? Does that make you feel differently about this candidate?

These questions encourage kids to, once again, think for themselves rather than rely on our responses to determine their own beliefs.

We can also reiterate that actions have consequences–sometimes when candidates behave badly, it affects the way people perceive them and can ultimately affect the outcome of the election. (It seems that even the worst modeling by adults can provide helpful teaching moments!)

We can also help kids understand they don’t have to take everything they hear at face value. This can be a hard concept, especially when younger kids take everything literally. 

Most news sites offer a fact-checking analysis after the debates. If you and your kids are skeptical about something, guide them through gathering research from multiple reputable sites so they can determine what is fact versus spin. 

Final Thoughts

There is a lot of political noise out there. But siphoning it down to something intelligible–and informative–for our kiddos is far from an impossible task.

There isn’t a golden script that works for every family, but if you’re balancing accurate information with your family’s values (through open, age-appropriate political discussions), you’re providing ethical guidance without mandating what your kids should believe. It’s a winning combo.

As loving parents, all we can really do is give our kids the confidence and competence to carry our country forward.

In the end, we must remember this is a democracy. Our kids can pick any side. Or no side at all. Or invent a new political party! It’s their choice.

America is their future far more than it is ours. 

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.