With public impeachment hearings bound to dominate media coverage this week, adults aren’t the only ones likely to absorb the heightened political tensions or feel overwhelmed by the details. Children, no matter their age, are likely to have some exposure to the tumultuous political happenings, whether from family, friends, teachers or social media.
Experts say that’s why it’s important for parents to think critically about how they talk to their children about the impeachment news and President Donald Trump, as well as being mindful about how they address it in conversation with other adults when their children are around. The example parents set for their children could have a broader effect than they think.
“A whole generation of kids might be raised in a time where their first exposure to the president is a president being impeached. That has consequences for whether they are trusting of the system or the democratic process,” said Christopher Ojeda, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee who has studied how children perceive politics.
When today’s parents grew up during the Nixon or Clinton impeachment proceedings, they may have been shielded from much of the news, say, if their own parents kept the television off until after the kids were in bed.
Now, with the ubiquity of the internet and social media, it’s nearly impossible to shield children from the flow of the news.
“Adults often assume kids don’t understand these things so it’s not worth engaging, but kids will try to make sense of what they are hearing,” said Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of developmental psychology at New York University.
Kids are likely to interpret the impeachment hearings differently depending on their age. Younger children might not grasp much beyond the fact that the president is being scrutinized, whereas older children might understand more of the intricacies of the process and already have opinions about what is happening.
On average, children between ages 8 and 18 spend between 4.5 and 7.5 hours on screens, watching online videos, gaming and using social media, according to a study released last month by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for responsible media use by children and families.
Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media’s senior parenting editor, said kids are getting their news from YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat. Even if they aren’t seeking it out directly, news about impeachment is likely to slip into their conversations with friends or possibly even in the livestreams of gamers they watch online.
“We will do a lot better by our kids by realizing that they are informed,” Knorr said.
An academic study about kids’ knowledge of the 2016 election, for example, found children from ages 5 to 11 knew a substantial amount not only about the candidates running, but also their policies, including on immigration, guns and women’s rights.
In another Common Sense Media survey, about half of the kids said following the news is important to them and it makes them feel prepared to make a difference in their community. Another 70 percent said it makes them feel “smart and knowledgeable.” At the same time, 63 percent of kids said the news makes them feel afraid, angry, and/or sad or depressed.
Parents can play a role in guiding their children’s understanding of the news so they feel more empowered and less confused. While impeachment is a complicated concept, researchers say children will still be able to grasp the broader concepts.
“You can explain in a fair amount of detail and sophistication what is going on without necessary confusing kids,” Cimpian said. “Don’t underestimate kids’ ability to understand what is going on. Don’t feel like you have to dumb things down.”
Knorr suggests parents download Snapchat and use other social media to understand how their children are getting information.
Then parents should have a “prep talk” with their children, she recommends, in which they explain that things are “heating up” in the political sphere. Let kids know you might be watching the news more often, as well as discussing how the impeachment hearings play into our society’s democratic values.
One key tip: Listen more than you speak. Ask your child open-ended questions about where they are getting their news, whether they think it is a trustworthy source and why, what they have heard about the impeachment hearings at school and what they think about the process.
“Kids value the news, but we don’t have to have a lecture. It doesn’t have to be [that] everyday at the dinner table is a somber rehashing of the day’s news,” Knorr said. “Your most valuable conversations often occur during micro moments — when kids are brushing their teeth; when they’re getting in the car for school.”
Another suggestion: Don’t feel like you have to have all the right answers. Be honest with your children that this is a learning experience for the entire family.
Parents can use the impeachment hearings to convey the importance of civil discourse, of living in a country where people can hold different viewpoints and understanding why people develop opposing political opinions. That might even include disagreements in politics within their own family.
“Parents can influence how kids think about impeachment, but they should also be prepared for children to express views that are different from their own,” Ojeda said. “That’s O.K. and could be used as an example of what good political discussion looks like.”
But staying level-headed is not always easy. Parents themselves are likely to have passionate opinions about Trump depending on their political leanings.
In the 2016 election study of children, kids repeated the positive and negative views they heard about candidates. One 8-year-old girl told researchers Trump “is a good man and he did lots of things to help other people.” But another 7-year-old boy said “he’s a big fat liar,” and an 8-year-old girl said he had “ugly hair.”
Some parents might be more worried than others about imposing their political opinions on their children, but all parents should consider how their approach to the impeachment hearings convey values to their children.
“It’s important in a world where there is so much going on that, even when their parents are open-minded, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed,” Knorr said, even if it’s as simple as avoiding name-calling.