As the race for the presidency enters its final stretch, many parents are struggling with how to explain this election to their children in age-appropriate language. Especially when so much of the media coverage involves behavior that is not remotely age-appropriate.
In no other modern presidential election have policy issues and a vision for the future given way so completely to name-calling, bullying, and mocking the less fortunate; crass descriptions of sexual prowess; and relentless racist and xenophobic rhetoric. And that was all before Donald Trump boasted of sexually assaulting a woman.
Yeah, it’s a tough year for parents who have been fielding a lot of sensitive questions from their little ones: “Why did Donald Trump say that?” “Why would he do that?” “Is Hillary Clinton a liar?” “Did her husband really do those things?” “What will happen if Trump is elected?” “Why do people support him?” “Why is this happening?”
Regardless of who parents support in the election, their responses to these difficult questions often depend on the child’s age, background and experience. Still, here are some “talking points” that may make the conversations a little less daunting for parents and teachers.
Tell them the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Sometimes, you’ve got to lay a little groundwork. You might say: “There are many groups of voters in America, and the two main ones are called the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Although Republicans and Democrats have some things in common, they often disagree about how the country should collect and spend its money, and what people should be allowed to do inside our country. Which party a president belongs to can tell you something, although not everything, about what they believe.”
Explain the importance of the presidential election. “The president holds enormous influence in deciding the future of the country. He or she makes decisions that affect a lot of people, including us. When it’s time to elect a new president, we have to really listen to what the candidates say and do, so that we are prepared to cast our votes. Voting for a president is one of our most important jobs as American citizens.”
Explain the limitations of the presidency. Thankfully, we are a democracy. And in a democracy, the power is split among the president, senators, members of the House of Representatives and Supreme Court justices. That’s important for kids to grasp. “Sometimes,” you might say, “presidents want to make changes, but they can’t — because not enough people agree. When you hear a candidate talk about ‘building a wall’ or ‘making college free’ or ‘creating jobs’ or ‘deporting immigrants,’ those may be one candidate’s wishful plans, but they aren’t done deals. Those plans tell us a lot about the people who are running, but not a lot about what they will be capable of accomplishing. That wall? It was probably never going to happen.”
Teach a healthy skepticism. What kids see on TV or read on the internet or hear coming out of a politician’s mouth is not always true. And that’s a great lesson for kids to learn. “Just because someone says it,” you might tell them, “doesn’t make it true.” Explain the difference between fact (something true), fiction (something untrue) and belief (something some believe to be true and some believe to be untrue). Encourage kids to be fact-checkers, to look for evidence in people’s claims and, most importantly, to make up their own minds about what to believe.
State your values. What you value, what you say, and what you believe matters far more to your kids than anything they’ll hear from Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. You are the president in your child’s eyes. Use that to your advantage! “We are a family that values honesty, fairness, humility, generosity, kindness, trustworthiness and compassion for the less fortunate,” you can say. “No matter what you hear a candidate say, or a teacher say, or a friend say, always try very hard to be true to your own values, whatever they are.”
Resist unnecessary sugarcoating. And now it’s time to call out Trump on some of his outrageous statements. Protecting children from some of the sexually explicit language he uses is understandable, but don’t try to shield kids from racism or sexism or bigotry. These are real issues that exist all over this country, issues that have enabled some important and unprecedented national discussions to take hold; kids will benefit from being brought into the dialogue as soon as possible. Some questions to ask: “Have you ever seen or experienced prejudice? How did that make you feel? Have you ever felt prejudice against someone of a different race or religion or ethnicity? Why do you think you had those bad feelings? What do you think we should do when we see people being unkind to others?”
Don’t mince words. Tell your kids: “It’s never okay to judge people on the color of their skin. It’s never okay to treat people badly because they don’t look like you, or because they weren’t born in your country, or because they don’t belong to your religion. It’s never okay for a man to touch a woman (or a girl) anywhere on her body without her permission. Never.”
Give them some context. We need to tell kids that this is an unusual election — because it is. This is the first year in recent memory that Republicans have a nominee who is alienating large numbers of his own party; many conservative people (and news organizations) are endorsing a Democrat for the first time ever. That’s a big deal. And it’s incredibly unique. It shows you that this election — dominated by one candidate’s brash, offensive and even unethical behavior — is not the norm and, with any luck at all, won’t be repeated.
Go high. Generalizing breeds hate. Regardless of how you view a particular candidate, we shouldn’t stereotype that person’s supporters. You might say: “People side with candidates for any number of reasons; they may disagree with a lot of what the politician says or does and yet still support that person for president. This year, for instance, a lot of decent people support Trump, despite his behavior, because he’s not a polished career politician and they can identify with him on that level. Trump will eventually be out of our lives, but his supporters won’t — and most of them are our friends and neighbors.”