The presidential election is upon us and despite the divisive, scheming antics that dominate the political scene, political shenanigans present golden opportunities for teaching our children lessons in independent thinking, respectful dialogue, values, and public service.
Think for Yourself
Around the third and fourth grades, many children start coming home asking questions and repeating political comments they've heard on the playground, from other parents, or in the media. As tempting as it may be to set your child straight according to your personal persuasions, encourage your child to think independently.
Ask him open-ended questions to hear his point of view. Watch and analyze the debates and speeches together. "Did you think what he said was respectful? Which candidate seems more honest to you? If you were president, how would you make it fair?" When you share your opinions, preface your comments with "I think" or "I feel."
"Find out what they're thinking. It's a very, very interesting conversation, and I'll tell you, kids come up with really brilliant ideas," says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child.
Control Your Anger
With so much emotion surrounding politics, it can be difficult to keep anger in check. Remember your child watches your reaction for cues about how you handle disagreement...so try to refrain from screaming at the TV and angrily debating others.
Express With Respect
Honor freedom of expression by tolerating each other's differences. Set ground rules ahead of time if you plan to engage in political discussion. This is especially important for parents who find themselves squaring off.
"A lot of couples enjoy a vigorous debate that can get a little heated and can feel like arguing or fighting in front of the children and I can tell you it can raise kids' anxiety," Walfish says.
Ground rules include: no interrupting, take turns listening, and no put-downs, insults, or blaming. And if you come to an impasse, agree to disagree.
Who Can You Trust?
While the mud-slinging nature of politics probably won't change anytime soon, it's our job as voters to try to determine which candidate we can trust to follow through on his promises. To help kids make the connection ask them if they would prefer to be friends with the child who says anything to win a game or the child who wins (or loses) without breaking his promises.
Our representatives usually enter public service because of a desire to make a positive difference in our country and in our lives. Discuss how you serve your community or school to further exemplify why such service matters.
Show your child that it's important to participate in the process because her voice and actions matter. Take your children to the voting booth to see the process in action and watch election night coverage together.
"Sharing political stories from (your) childhood can help parents bridge the gap with their kids," says Mary Jane McKittrick, author of the Boomer and Halley children's series (written for ages 4 to 8), including the Mom's Choice award-winning book Boomer and Halley: Election Day. "Remind children of some of the politicians you voted for who turned out to be better, or worse, leaders than you ever expected!"
Above all, point out examples of how politics affects our lives, from fueling nationwide social change (think women and civil rights), to constructing modern schools locally. When people collaborate to resolve problems, we build stronger, more vibrant communities in the process.