Parents looking to get their kids engaged in civic life will have plenty of talking points this morning. This year’s midterm elections in the US featured a number of landmark moments, from the election of over 100 women to the House of Representatives to the country’s first openly gay governor in Colorado and the first Muslim and Native American women elected to Congress. At the same time, the dramatic run-up to the elections—featuring inflammatory rhetoric, incidents of politically-motivated violence, accusations of voter suppression and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud—suggests the US remains deeply polarized. And with Congress now split between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, the next two years are likely to feature even more political clashes.
The good news is that parents can seize this moment as an opportunity to put their kids on the path toward a productive life of civic engagement—and even take a step toward bridging America’s bitter political divides.
Young people in the US have historically been disengaged from the political process. In the past four decades of midterm elections, youth turnout has mostly oscillated between 20%-30%.
But this year, things seem to be different. High-profile youth activists like the survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida brought a different dynamic to the election, centered around issues that young people care about like gun control, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. This has translated into higher than usual levels of youth voter registration and optimistic projections for youth turnout. More than 3.3 million voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their votes early in this year’s election, a 188% increase from 2014.
If you’re looking to put your kids on the path to this kind of engagement, it’s best to follow the lead of youth activists and focus conversations on the political issues that already matter to them, according to Caroline Knorr, a senior parenting editor at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. (No need to get into property taxes or Social Security just yet.)
Social media can make it easier to understand what it is that kids care about: “There’s an extraordinary amount of election coverage on kids’ social media,” says Knorr. “Ask them what issues they would want to have an impact on—homelessness? immigration? LGBTQ equality? These are issues that young people are very engaged with, so make the issues relevant to them.”
Rey Junco, a senior researcher at CIRCLE, a Tufts University research center focused on youth civil engagement, says that family is the top motivator for young kids to learn about and get involved in politics. And in voting, as in many areas of life, actions speak louder than words—so if you want your kids to be politically engaged, make sure you head to the polls yourself, and bring children with you if you can. As Kaitlin Ahern writes in NYMetro Parents, “that age-old phrase, ‘kids learn by example,’ is as true in the political realm as it is in other facets of life.”
Children’s ability to absorb political information varies with age. Parents of younger kids, especially those under seven, may want to consider turning off political news at home. Aggressive rhetoric or news of political violence can be particularly upsetting to kids at that age. In fact, Knorr advises parents to “try to keep serious, grown-up news away from very young kids.”
Kids between eight and 12 may understand, but not fully process, the political climate around them, and they may have lots of questions about it. Common Sense Media advises parents of those children to be available for questions, and to filter news coverage while making it open for discussion.
This is a sensitive age because many kids are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. So CSM advises parents that, if they choose to expose their eight to 12 year olds to politics, “you may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank.”
Experts agree that parents should also try to avoid thrusting their own negative feelings about politics onto their kids. While contemporary politics can be upsetting and painful to many people, “it’s important for parents to realize that kids are just supremely sensitive to their parents’ emotions,” Knorr says. “A lot of the election information is too abstract for kids to really grasp. So make it clear that it’s not your kids that is making you tense.”
Moreover, just as children learn to care about politics from their parents, they learn the attitudes they bring toward politics from older generations, too. In discussing the results of the midterms with their kids, parents have the opportunity to instill in their children the sense that political engagement—regardless of the result—can be driven not by anger, but by hope.