How to parent your child through the final weeks of the US presidential election

You can’t hide your kid from the election. So how do you parent them through it?
You can’t hide your kid from the election. So how do you parent them through it?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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How does a parent deal with the uncomfortable issues bubbling up this election cycle?

“This is not normal. This is not politics as usual,” First Lady Michelle Obama said yesterday (Oct. 13), sharing her anger and anguish over Republican nominee Donald Trump’s taped, highly disrespectful, remarks about women. “What message are our little girls hearing about who they should look like, how they should act? What lessons are they learning about their value as professionals, as human beings, about their dreams and aspirations? And how is this affecting men and boys in this country?”

The first lady’s questions cut to the heart of parenting through the ugliness on display this election. Even though interest in politics is typically strongest during presidential campaigns, this time Trump’s outsized media personality, Clinton’s high profile and gender, and the spread of social media have combined to raise awareness about the candidates and their statements even among young children.

At the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP), executive director Steve Edwards points out that although this is far from being the first divisive campaign in the US, there are unique elements to it. “There is no question that Hillary Clinton’s gender is playing a role in drawing new attention and new interest to the overall campaign. Donald Trump is a figure who came out of the business and entertainment worlds. There are new variables in this campaign,” he said.

With politics seeping into playgrounds, what role do parents play? Should parents initiate discussions or should they wait for children to share what they’ve heard? Should children be involved in campaign related events?

While every family’s choice is unique to their beliefs and circumstances, Edwards, whose own fascination with politics started when he was captivated by a presidential election as a ten-year-old, believes that parents have a valuable role in providing context and insight in discussions with their children. “Campaign rhetoric can be heated,” he said. “I think it is important that parents help children understand that they can disagree but not demonize. This is an opportunity to talk about what it means to be an engaged citizen and to be involved in democratic politics.”

For Lois Scott, the president of Epoch Partners and a former Chicago city CFO, Clinton’s emergence as the first woman to be nominated for the US presidency by a major political party was an opportunity to show young girls that there were no limits to their dreams.

Scott vividly remembers the June evening in 2008 when she went upstairs to find her then seven-year-old daughter, Audrey, sobbing. Clinton had lost the Democratic presidential nomination to fellow senator Barack Obama. Scott liked both candidates. Her daughter saw it differently. “Mommy, you don’t understand,” cried Audrey. “If Hillary can’t win, none of us can.”

“It broke my heart that she saw her dreams being limited,” Scott said.

Audrey’s words haunted Scott. This fall, Scott and fellow moms, Gabrielle Martinez and Jami Darwin Chiang, decided to create an event to encourage girls to make themselves be heard in the political process. Nearly 400 participants, including Scott’s now 15-year-old daughter, crowded Chicago’s Savage Smyth event space at the aptly titled “GirlsGetLoud” event. Girls ages seven through 18 exuberantly shouted out issues that worried them, created giant posters and wrote letters to media organizations about their coverage of the nominees. Clinton’s childhood friend, Betsy Eberling was among those who spoke, as was Cook County candidate for state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, who spoke about her childhood in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green public housing.

“I’ve never been involved in anything like this before,” said Darwin Chiang, an artist. “But this election has raised issues about how women are treated differently. My ten-year-old daughter cannot vote but it was important for her to see a future where we are building each other up, not judging. These are issues that will not go away after the election.”

For Melissa and Dennis Kelly, parents of four children ranging from ages 8 through 22, it was important that their children learn to see both sides of issues such as immigration and gun control. As the presidential campaigns gained speed this summer, the Kellys started discussing major political issues over dinner. Immigration, for example, became a debate on how to help those who want to immigrate to the US while also making sure that there were enough resources for American citizens in need. “I want my children to have a moral compass,” said Dennis, a corporate tax attorney.

While the discussions are animated, the Kellys draw the line at their three younger children being actively involved in political events. Melissa, a stay at home mom who studies issues with the same careful manner with which she used to work on fossils at a museum, pointed out that young children absorb their parents’ political views. “I like it when they ask questions and bring things up,” she said. “But I don’t know that they can make an important decision just yet.” Agreed Dennis, “I don’t think children have the experience or knowledge base to make informed decisions.”

The historic nature of Clinton’s campaign led the Kellys to reexamine their perspectives. To Melissa, the campaign was an opportunity to celebrate the nomination of a woman for the presidency, perhaps a time to savor with their daughters. To Dennis, the time to celebrate was on the last day of the Democratic convention–when Clinton accepted the nomination–and on Election Day, if she does win. “That would be a celebration of the fact that she would have broken a previously impenetrable barrier. But I don’t want to have the children involved in a political campaign simply because she is a girl,” he said.

Some other parents view it differently. Back in 2008, Marie Ciavarella, a business psychologist and her wife, Jovita Baber, a VP for research at a non-profit, had newborn twins and were Democratic supporters but not actively involved in any campaign. This time, they are Hill-starters, among the earliest supporters of the Clinton campaign. “We talk at home about the historical significance of this election. We want our daughters to know that they can do everything, that women and girls can fight for what is important,” said Ciavarella.

To Ciavarella and Baber, there is no hard line between discussing politics at home and going to campaign events. Their eight-year-old twins have met Clinton at a campaign event and accompanied Ciavarella to a Clinton phone bank where the girls colored while their mother made calls. The political immersion is having an effect. When the girls saw a Clinton sign lying on the pavement, they made Ciavarella stop to pick it up. That sign is now displayed in their front yard.

“Would we have been as actively involved if we had boys? I would think so.” Ciavarella mused. “Our discussions at home are also about race and ethnicity, about the things that Trump says. Kids are very aware of whose parents support Trump and whose parents support Hillary. Politics bleeds into everything.”

Jeanne Hunt, a Pilates instructor and the mother of 10 and 11 year old boys, is well aware of how the politics of the presidential campaign influences classroom and playground conversations. Hunt describes her childhood as very insular, growing up as a white Catholic in a neighborhood with little diversity. Her sons go to a magnet school with a diverse population. “What is interesting is how aware the kids are of the election,” she said. “My kids have definite anti-Trump views because of his perspective on Mexican immigration and building the wall. I was impressed by their empathy for their friends.”

Hunt’s younger son, Simon, recently ran for election as the student representative for his fifth grade class. In fourth grade, he had lost and was devastated. This year, he ran on a platform of being inclusive–an interesting choice in a divisive presidential campaign year–and won. Said Hunt, “I am not particularly super involved with politics. But if either of my boys decided to become involved with politics, I would be pounding the pavements with them.”

While parents opt for various degrees of political involvement, the real lasting legacy may be the realization that it is becoming increasingly harder to insulate children from politics. “Our kids are watching,” said Scott, who never forgot the impact of Clinton’s 2008 loss on her young child, “Too often we try to avoid politics as it were something dirty. To me, as a mom, it is really a responsibility to keep children focused on our extraordinary democratic process. No matter what your dreams are, politics will shape it.”