How to Talk to Your Kids About Politics in a Time of Sharp Division

Children, especially pre-teens, are exposed to the ugly side of political rhetoric whether we as parents like it or not. The question, then, is how best to help them navigate the potentially upsetting and confusing messages they are hearing.

Parents can act as leaders, rooting conversations about politics in an awareness of values that can strengthen children’s resilience, optimism and tolerance. Our research in the forthcoming book, Parents Who Lead, suggests that parents should approach political conversations using these guiding principles:

Frame the conversation in terms of values.

Begin by defining what you value as a family and use this as a foundation for thinking about or considering candidates and policies. Rather than defining yourselves by a particular political party, define yourselves by the values you cherish. Rather than focus on why you don’t like a particular person, focus on why their choices aren’t aligned with your values.

Use optimistic language.

Children need to feel safe and secure, especially in turbulent political times. Explain that our society has gone through divisive political times in the past and emerged stronger as a result. Draw on your direct experience in having lived through political conflict in your own life or your indirect knowledge of how your forbears did so, and what they learned about the meaning of a good life from having done so. You might have to dig deep, but find and use optimistic language so children don’t feel that they are facing imminent threat nor that you as a family are powerless to affect positive change in the world.

Reduce noise and focus on relationships.

Many of us have gotten used to having politics play out in the background of our lives; we listen to news radio or podcasts in the car or have television news on while we prepare dinner. This on-going low-level exposure can be a distraction that reduces opportunities for quality time, when your attention and mood aren’t dictated by the news of the day but, rather, by your curiosity about and compassion for those directly in your midst. Be conscious about when, where, and why you engage with political news. Set aside time for non-distracted talk about politics and focus on strengthening relationships in meaningful ways.

See yourselves as part of a village.

Bring friends and neighbors together over a meal to explore the values you share, why you share them, how these values inform your understanding of the issues of the day, and how you can help each other express what matters most to you in a way that demonstrates compassion and curiosity.

With constant controversy in the background—impeachment proceedings, debates among presidential candidates, how to handle the new coronavirus and school shootings—it’s impossible for kids to remain unaware of what’s going on in the wider world. But these debates can also serve as a chance to have important conversations.

  • For children who are old enough, opportunities for history and civics lessons abound. You might read the Constitution together and talk about how the values underlying it fit with the values you hold dear in your family.
  • Discuss where members of your family stand on issues of school safety and gun control, climate change, providing a safety net for society’s most vulnerable, and justice for all, again, bringing it back to what you believe in, and why you believe in what you do.

Everyone is different and every family is different. The current political climate has brought so many divisive issues to the fore. Rather than allowing our children to hear about them only in the schoolyard, from one point of view, or from a misinformed peer, an open family conversation is a way to model for our children how to think about complex issues that don’t have simple cookie-cutter answers.

Stewart D. Friedman and Alyssa F. Westring are the authors of Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life. Friedman is the practice professor of management, emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center, he has written two bestselling books Leading the Life You Want and Total Leadership. He hosts a national show on SiriusXM’s Wharton Business Radio, Work and Life. Westring is Associate Professor of Management at the Driehaus College of Business, DePaul University.