February 1, 2017

Parents have been asking me about how to talk to their children about current political issues.  And recently we have been hearing some of the older children mentioning these issues in school.

Here are some things we are hearing:
  1. Children feeling that the president is not good.  We have heard some of the children mention the current president with fear or repulsion. They often are not clear about why this is.  Some of them say ‘he says bad words’ and others say ‘he will not let you go in the country,’ so they are picking up things they overhear or things their parents discuss with them, but of course they don’t have a complete grasp of political issues due to their age and maturity level.  
  2. Knowing that people are marching for some reason, but not entirely clear why, they repeat chants they have heard and there is some sense of urgency that they can’t quite pinpoint.
I do not wish to take a political position here, I merely want to give some guidance as to how parents can talk to children about their own feelings in a way that is helpful to children.  
The main negative emotions these days seem to be fear and helplessness.  The positive emotions are a sense of awareness of community, and strength in that togetherness.  Helplessness is not a good feeling as it leads to anger or despair, children may sense this even if you are not expressing it directly in words.  So a good way to talk about your feelings might be as follows:
  1. Discuss the rights of people in a society – especially the right to vote.  Some of the older children say ‘well people did vote but they didn’t get the person they wanted.’  That is still a good lesson for children to learn.  Yes if you don’t get the person you wanted, you can still do other things that make an impact. 
  2. Discuss the fact that elections occur regularly – this might be your child’s first experience of an election, but it certainly (hopefully!) won’t be the last.  There is a future to prepare for, and children need to know that.  
  3. Discuss the reasons you feel negatively – are there issues you worry about?  The environment? Fair wages? Immigration? Social security for old people?  Thinking about issues you care about makes fear less nebulous and more easy to tackle.  Most children can relate to the idea of a clean environment and taking care of the weaker members of society.  Pick one or two issues to focus on.
  4. Discuss the things people can do in a democracy – marching, writing letters, generating or signing petitions, getting involved in local politics or organizations, donating money, time, or goods, and so on. Feelings of helplessness diminish when we realize we can do something. 
  5. Teach children about the system. The more they know about government structure the better. They can learn that politicians are not alien beings they are people and any of us can take part in the system if we choose. 
  6. For older children (say, 5 or 6 and up) you can give examples from history of people who made a difference in a non-violent way, e.g. Rosa Parks, and let them know these ordinary people actually changed the course of history. 
In short, children can be very fearful of a ‘bad guy’ who has power over us, so I would avoid focusing fears on one person, and avoid generating feelings of being a victim. Fear is crippling – as FDR said, and Winston Churchill repeated: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Instead it is empowering to talk about the options people have to change society, and the fact that most change comes from the bottom up. 
We can change the world and it’s a great thing to see people realizing that there is strength in numbers and there are many ways to make ourselves heard no matter who is at the top.