The 2020 election is right around the corner and this year it’s extra difficult to talk to children about it. There is so much going on - how in the world do we explain this to our kids?
While there are tons of general articles about talking to children about elections (I like this one by National Geographic), most don’t make clear how voting is critical to equity and fairness. (I list a few more general resources at the end of this post). In this post, I highlight two common voting misconceptions among children and explore how we can clarify them while expanding ideas about how voting and equity are intertwined.
Children hear us talk about candidate in terms of “liking” or “disliking” candidates. What we actually mean is that, not only do we support a candidate as a person, we also support their worldview and, in particular, we support their policies (or - at least we prefer them to other candidate!).
What to say to kids: When talking about your voting choice – be specific and move beyond a candidate’s personal traits. The idea of “policy” is abstract – but it is not too sophisticated for children.
For younger children, explain that policies are plans for towns, states, and governments. These plans have wide impact. For example, if our family decided to throw all our garbage into the backyard, that might be easy for us, but eventually this plan would cause problems for neighbors. Town, state, and national policies are the same – a plan might work well at first, or well for some, but eventually cause broader issues.
Older children can understand that policies create, change, or destroy programs, impact relationships with other countries, and influence laws. They understand that policies can have both intended and unintended consequences.
Launch a discussion with your children about specific policies. Three of my favorite critical thinking questions for children around policy are:
1. What problem is this policy trying to fix?
2. Do you think this idea will work?
3. What would you do?
Lastly, talk to your children about the candidate(s) you prefer. Be open about your own beliefs and values. Connect your ideas to the big picture. Let them know that no candidate or policy is perfect, however - they reflect what our value and our hopes for America’s future.
Adults also talk about voting in terms of our own needs and preferences - this only captures only one aspect of why we vote. Considering our own interests is human, however, in the United States, voting has broad impact. If we want to put equity at the center of our parenting, our children should understand that we also evaluate candidates and their policies by their impact on others.
What to say to kids: For younger children, take one issue – and compare it to a similar problem in their world. For example, what would school be like if teachers never asked students to clean up their materials? Who would benefit from this? What might the long-term consequences be (good and bad)? What would happen if a state or country never required its citizens or businesses to clean up?
Older children are likely already aware of inequities in our world. Even minimal exposure to 2020 news reveals biased policing, healthcare, and education (and more) in the US. I talk to my children about how fortunate they are to be in a good school system, to live in a state that values environmental cleanliness, and prioritizes healthcare. We talk about what other states do and think about how these differences impact children like them.
Within that framework, I tell my children that part of my job as a voter is to evaluate how policies will impact not just me, but Americans as a whole. Voting is about the future. It’s an amazing right and an awesome responsibility.
When I vote, I consider:
How will these candidates and their plans impact other people ?
What kind of future will they create for the United States?