By Phyllis Fagell
The morning after the vice-presidential debate, third-grade teacher Marvin Reed showed his class a clip of the final question, from Brecklynn Brown, an eighth-grader from Utah: “When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”
Reed then asked his students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., for their reactions.
One child said, “It’s like if a teacher isn’t being responsible, how can you expect us to get along?” Reed recalled. An 8-year-old boy said he wished he could ask, “What are you going to do to fix covid, because covid is here and people are sad.”
As a school counselor and parent, I know that children of all ages are struggling to make sense of a divisive election that’s occurring against the backdrop of a global pandemic and civil unrest. According to a recent Springtide Research Institute survey, 45 percent of young people wish the adults in their lives would let them into conversations about politics more often, and 65 percent of respondents don’t see adults modeling healthy, open-minded political dialogue.
“We don’t give kids enough credit,” said Bria Wright, a second-grade teacher in Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. “I always say, if you ever want to be blown away, join my class and see how critically kids can think through justice and fairness.”
No matter how much children know, they need the adults in their lives “to recognize that the energy is really charged and have the conversation,” said Marie Heath, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Loyola University. Here are six ways caregivers and educators can frame and use this moment to help kids develop core values, think critically, maintain an even keel and act with agency.
Provide context and background information
Children are hearing concerns about everything from voter suppression to the smooth transition of power, and adults can provide context to help them make sense of the democratic process. “It’s not something that’s abstract — we are all watching it unfold,” said Mery Taylor, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s in Orange County, Calif., who urges parents “to get ahead of the information.”
An adult can break down the voting process. Say, “You’re choosing people who are going to make policies,” said Alex Keyssar, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” He would explain, “I cast my vote for a candidate in my state, but I’m not casting my vote directly for the candidate. I’m voting to choose people who will meet next month and cast electoral votes for whichever candidate wins the majority of votes in my state, and then those people will send their votes to Congress to be counted.” Point out that the system for electing presidents is complicated and can be rocky, as it was designed more than 200 years ago for a much smaller nation that had little experience with elections.
Focus on policies, not politicians
Encourage children to think less about aligning with a particular person or party, and more about issues. Ask, “What do you love and worry about at home, in your community, in your state, country, and world?” Heath said. Then prompt them to consider which candidate’s vision and actions best match their own priorities.
Teach kids the distinction between respecting the office and respecting the officeholder, too, said Jacob T. Levy, Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University and author of the book “Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.” “We don’t want children to overvalue political leaders, to exaggerate their moral importance or assume that whoever won should have won.” When we view leaders as villains or heroes, he noted, we can get complacent.
“People assume that any progress that has been made over history will necessarily keep going, and that old mistakes won’t be repeated,” Levy explained. “Peace, prosperity, respect for other people — those things are more fragile than you ever believe in the good times. When kids are aware that things aren’t going well, let them know it will get better, but to remember that they can get bad again,” he said. “Understanding and doing the right thing is hard, an ongoing struggle that every person and every generation faces.”
Talk about rights and responsibilities
Being a citizen is an active role; it’s not passively listening to radio or TV or reading news stories, said Frederick Kempe, president and chief executive of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank and public policy group in the District. “Students need to understand that not only are they the benefactors of America’s history of democracy, but must sustain it going forward.”
To instill a sense of agency, help kids pinpoint what matters to them. Is it climate change? Animal rights? Racial equality? Encourage them to be agents of change, whether they contact government representatives to enact laws that prevent voter suppression, work the polls on Election Day or write a political op-ed for their school newspaper. Adults can provide examples of young changemakers, such as Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, or the teens who started the March for Our Lives movement. Wright tells her second-graders about child activists from the civil rights era.
Reinforce values such as honesty, kindness and respect
A few of my students found the first presidential debate jarring and wanted to talk about the incivility. While that debate was a poor example of civil discourse, it provided an opening to talk about our obligations to one another and the role that values such as kindness, respect and honesty play in our culture.
Adults also can talk about the importance of listening to learn rather than listening to respond, and show kids examples of productive disagreement, such as the recent debate between New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her opponent, Judith Collins.
At home, talk about your own values, said Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.” “It’s a first step toward pausing and taking the bird’s eye view, even if you don’t like what you are looking at from up there,” she said. Meyer will tell her own seventh-grader, “As a family, we deeply value honesty, and with that comes not jumping to judgment.” She reminds her child that just because someone is lying doesn’t mean we know the truth, which means we need to keep asking hard questions and pursue facts, not people.
Ad hominem attacks are nothing new in American politics, Kempe said. “The danger of a moment like this is that students begin to adopt the polarizing language of our politics at its worst, and instead they should understand the unifying principles and values that have kept us a democracy for well over two centuries — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, all people are created equal.”
Counter divisiveness by celebrating diversity
“I focus on how our strength is in our diversity — how we can come together to make a beautiful picture,” Wright said.
“Name race, name religion, answer kids’ curiosity, and take away the taboo-ness from all of it,” she said. “Say, ‘this is our way of life, and others are different, not worse or better.’ ” Prompt kids to think about aspects of their own identity, such as their ethnicity, language or favorite activity. Then ask them what parts they really value and how they would feel if people ignored part of their identity.
Reed asks his students to interview a “hidden figure” in their community — someone from their own cultural background who isn’t famous but is making a difference. The children then write and share a biography with the class. “This would be a beautiful activity for families to do,” he said. Storytelling is a powerful way to help kids learn about themselves, ask questions, obtain data and draw their own conclusions.
Help kids ward off secondhand stress and retain optimism
At a time when few people are at their peak, adults can help children avoid “catching” others’ negative emotions by staying calm and modeling coping strategies, such as going for a walk or calling a friend. Assess what they need, too. Is it clarification? Information? Reassurance that they’re safe?
If kids are ruminating about worst-case scenarios or worrying about the outcome of the election, help them stay rooted in the present, whether they play a game or watch a funny TikTok video. If scrolling through grim news feeds is dampening their mood, encourage them to take a social media break. Or have them write about their feelings. Research shows that journaling about both negative and positive emotions can ward off secondhand stress and improve mental health.
To boost kids’ resilience, help them retain their optimism. Optimists believe that through the strength of their efforts, they can make a difference. As Kempe noted, “pessimists won’t try because they think it won’t do anything. You can be an optimist and skeptic who asks tough questions, but you can’t be an optimist and a cynic.”
To that end, focus on the founding principles that make the United States special, including its ability to self-correct. “It’s human to focus on candidates, to stir up emotions, but the reason the United States has been respected through the Cold War and before and beyond is because of the universality of our values and the effectiveness of our democratic institutions,” he said.
In fact, if a child’s candidate doesn’t win, adults can even frame that as a positive, Heath pointed out. “If we have a free, fair, uncontested election, that’s one of the most beautiful things that happens in America. We have a peaceful transition or continuation of power and continue to work to make things better.”