How to Explain US Politics to a Child
Talking to kids about politics doesn’t have to be stressful or scary. Show them that politics is about more than just arguing and name-calling.
Explain how policies affect their lives, such as laws that affect where they can and cannot park or whether they can carry a bag at the grocery store. Focus on the positive current events, as well.
How do we make decisions?
A big part of politics is forming opinions. You can help kids develop these skills by discussing cultural and world issues in a nonjudgmental way. You can also encourage kids to think about their own ideas and beliefs and consider that there are different ways to solve problems. Books and reputable news sites for children are available to guide this conversation.
Middle school-age children may be able to understand more complex political concepts, including the separation of local, state, and federal governments. They might start to learn about political parties and platforms, and they may become aware of political advertising.
It’s important to help kids understand that elections are not popularity contests and that media outlets often promote specific, favored viewpoints. It’s also important to teach kids that a person’s politics are not necessarily indicative of their character or values. Politicians are human, and like everyone else, they have virtues and shortcomings. They don’t all deserve our support.
Why do we vote?
Politics and kids would not seem like a natural combination. For one thing, they aren’t old enough to vote yet, and learning about current issues and party platforms smacks of (gulp) HOMEWORK. But politics is a crucial topic to introduce to children.
Talking about politics early on helps your children understand how laws, policies and elections affect their daily lives. This could include everything from local parks and roads to how much money the city spends on repairing that pothole on your street. Introducing your kids to the voting process can also help them feel a sense of pride in their privilege and civic duty.
This is also a great time to introduce your child to the idea that not everyone has the same social agenda. Explain that voting gives citizens a chance to voice their concerns on important issues, such as gay marriage and reproductive rights. This also allows voters to determine what social agendas will be prioritized by their local and state governments.
How do we know what to vote for?
At this age, children are absorbing the news and views of adults around them, and that can shape their political identities. They also start to understand that they can have an impact on their own lives if they voice their concerns.
Talk with your kids about how new laws are made. Explain how a bill starts out with a member of the House or Senate introducing it. Then it goes to a group of people called a committee. The committee can make changes in the bill, and they decide which bills will go to the whole House or Senate for a vote. If a majority of the members approve the bill, it becomes law.
Help your kids think about the issues that matter to them, and how they can get involved in solving those problems. It’s important to keep the conversation open and respectful, even when there are differences of opinion. Explain that healthy debate is a vital part of the democratic process.
How do we know who to vote for?
At this age, kids start to understand abstract political concepts and begin thinking about their own views. They may be running in student body elections, mock presidential votes at school, or watching news to stay current on important events. This is a great time to introduce them to different news sources, to help them find their own trusted information source and to model for them the importance of fact checking.
Encourage them to think about why they feel the way they do about issues. Discuss how their own experiences influence their opinions, and remind them that it’s okay to change their minds.
Children at this age are often exposed to mudslinging during campaign season and may take it personally. This is a good time to explain that candidates use name-calling as a strategy and they shouldn’t take it personally at home or on the playground. Also, help them see that voting is more than just popularity contests.