If you think politics is stressful and confusing for adults, imagine how kids feel. (Yes, they are paying attention!) Heated debates. Constant breaking news. Ads for candidates on social media. Kids absorb more about politics than we realize. Which is why it’s up to parents to model civility, teach respect for different viewpoints, and set the right example for responsible political engagement. Dr. Christia Spears Brown is a professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Kentucky and director of the university's Center for Equality and Social Justice. She shares findings from a 2019 study on kids and their political thinking and offers advice on how to talk to your kids about politics, partisanship, and elections — in language they will understand.
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Talking to kids about politics and the election
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and this year, aside from talking about the pandemic, talking to your kids about politics and the election, maybe one of the hardest things you'll do. Dr. Christia Spears Brown is an author, researcher, and professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Kentucky, and she's the director of the University's Center for Equality and Social Justice. Christia joins us with advice on how to talk to your kids about politics, and of course, the 2020 election in a language they will understand. Have a listen. Christia, thank you so much for joining us today. This is obviously a very timely topic.
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Thanks for having me.
Emily Paisner: Four years ago, just before the last election, Care.com did a survey, and we found that most parents, almost 90% of them, who don't discuss politics with their kids say it's because they think that they're too young to understand. I'm curious, do you think they're right? Are kids too young to understand these issues?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: No, I really don't. I think that kids know a lot from really early age. They're paying attention. Now, their understanding might be slightly skewed. It may not be exactly what we're thinking that their understanding, but they really are paying attention and really receptive to what's going on. The rub of that is, by parents not talking about it when kids are young, and yet, they're still paying attention to it. Their understanding is a little bit off and not exactly accurate, but approach is accurate.
Emily Paisner: How do we start talking to our kids about politics and elections? How can we do it in a way that's age-appropriate so that they'll really grasp some of these concepts?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Really, these concepts are part of the conversation that we really have with our kids from the beginning. I mean, if you think about politics is really a way in which we take care of other people in our community, for example, or how we show kindness and caring to others. Those are conversations we have from when our kids are very young.
Our kids know, when they're very young, when parents say, "Raise your hand if you want to have pizza. Raise your hand if we want to do tacos tonight," and kids raise their hands. They did that when they're very young and they understand that. Really, it's part of the other types of conversations we have, and that can start at the basic level when they're really toddlers and become more focused on things like civics and the electoral politics as kids are starting to begin school.
Emily Paisner: Most people assume that kids share political views that are shaped by their parents and their parents' values, what can you tell us about who or what influences a child's political thinking?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Well, we know that parents are always important, especially parents that sit around the dinner table and talk about politics and talk to their kids. We know that that's really influential. Kids also seem to be picking it up from their communities as well. We did a study that was published for SRCD, Society for Research and Child Development, last year, where we interviewed kids before the 2016 election then right after the 2016 election.
What we found was that even different from what their parents believe, kids that lived in US counties that voted for either Trump or for Clinton were also disproportionately for either Trump or for Clinton. Their kids' attitudes, even in elementary school, were pretty consistent with what their community-level voting patterns were, even beyond what their parents saying were their beliefs.
We know that they're absorbing it from the communities that they're in more largely, probably, from other kids at school. Definitely, we know they hear TV ads and radio ads, so they're also absorbing some of that background noise of a campaign season. All of those things seem to be filtering in. We were really surprised at how much kids seem to be hearing things on the news, for example, or things that probably weren't directly targeting kids but that they heard in the background noise of childhood.
Emily Paisner: With kids spending a lot more time on social media and technology these days, I'm sure that even those platforms like YouTube are penetrating into their sphere. I'm sure kids feel persuaded by that. Can you talk about the dangers of that, some of this misinformation that's making its way to our kids?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: I think there's a couple of things going on there, in that, one is we know that kids that are seeing a lot of the media use around elections, because politicians really play into fears, and fear-based campaigning is really common. It's the, "We have to guard you against the crime," for example, that's crossing over the border, or trying to make you scared of something. We know that when kids are seeing more of that on media, they're more likely to perceive the world as threatening and scary, and they're more likely to have some anxiety, some depression, worries. Part of that media consumption is going to also increase kid's anxiety about the election and what life might mean if one candidate wins over another candidate.
We also know, like you said, that there's a lot of disinformation out there. One thing we really encourage parents to do is to talk to kids about, "Is that really true? How can we find out if that's an accurate statement or not? Where can we go to find a reliable source of information and not just relying on the candidate saying something?" Having that as part of a broader conversation, just about media literacy. Looking at, "Let's find a reputable source. How do we know what something we can rely on? Why do we think they might be saying something that might be untrue?"
Emily Paisner: Yes, I think that there's a lot of fear right now amongst everyone, regardless of age. I can only imagine how this might impact kids. How do you temper those fears? Kids might see things very black and white. If this person wins the election, then, X, Y, or Z. How do you try and temper some of those fears?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Well, I think a big part of is making sure we're not making those big black and white statements because I think parents are often pretty scared too. I think sometimes we, in our own heightened emotions, say things that are really concerning because we know that we're being hyperbolic and exaggerating, but kids may be taking what we're saying very literally.
Partly, it's making sure that we're checking ourselves so that we're not saying fear-related statements because we have a sense of what we really mean by it, but kids can interpret much bigger and much scarier ways. Also, helping kids realize that, "Well, what does this really mean if this person wins? That we'll be okay," and thinking through some concrete ways that they can turn what would be fear into a sense of agency.
If they're worried about the environment and feeling scared about what will happen with the environment, thinking about, "Well, if this person wins, what are some ways we can really step up our efforts to help the earth?" Or, if you're worried about people losing money, "They will be okay, but what do you think about if we donated some extra food to the food pantry?" Turning a fear into something of, "What can we do? That we'll probably be fine, but there's things that we can do to make things a little bit better for everyone else." Helping them to both process their feelings, and then, to turn it into something active that they're more in control of, I think, is helpful.
Emily Paisner: I love that. As you know, we are an incredibly divided nation right now. We may say things that just come out, that are pretty harsh about either a candidate or a political issue that our kids overhear, and we know that they're picking up on everything that we say, or they may just hear stuff when they're at the grocery store or around other adults or family members. How can we teach them to respond to these comments or different viewpoints in a way that's positive and constructive and not hostile and combative, which they've likely seen play out in older adults?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Right. I think part of it is helping them recognize when adults are doing things the wrong way. Kids sometimes need a little help knowing that sometimes grownups don't really behave in the best way, and they shouldn't be good models for us, saying, "What's a different way they could have said that, or how could we handle the situation better?"
Thinking about how do we teach perspective-taking and empathy, feeling empathetic for others, thinking, "He's really saying that. It sounds like maybe he's scared. I wonder if he's really worried about X, Y, or Z." Helping them think through why are they saying that? What's a better way that they could have said it? How can we show respect for people even when we don't agree with them? Helping just humanize other people to help them realize that, "They're probably having a bad day, or they're really scared that they might lose their job, or they're really scared about what this means for their future, and so this is how they're reacting."
Part of it is making teachable moments. When we see people saying things that we know are not what we'd want our kids to model and to be able to help them recognize, "Oh, they could have really handled this differently." It forces adults to really keep our own behaviors in check. We have to really be careful of, "Okay, would I want my child repeating this to someone else? I got to really make sure that I'm modeling a kind, empathetic, moral, ethical kind of person so that they can be paying attention to that instead."
Emily Paisner: That was actually a great segue into my next question, which was, what should we avoid doing or saying around our kids when it comes to politics?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Part of it is making this more about issues and less about personalities because I think that an important part of that is, for one, it keeps us from doing name-calling or demonizing other people, but also, ultimately, what politics is is our values. It says, "These are the things we care about. This is what we care about in our family." If we can model, "This is the issues that matter to us and why," then, it becomes a good opportunity to talk about, "Well, this is why we believe in taking care of the people that perhaps have less money in our community than we do."
It becomes a bigger, more important lesson than just bad-mouthing the candidate that we don't like. Not only does it prevent us from doing some of the negative stuff, but it allows us to have a bigger conversation with our kids about our own sense of morals, ethics, and values. I think we always are looking for those conversations.
Emily Paisner: Can you talk a little bit about race and racism. We know that they are playing a central role in our political landscape, and it's confusing. Kids are asking a lot of questions, and we know that parents also avoid those conversations because they're very hard conversations to have. How can we talk to our kids about this connection between race and politics, something that has reared its head quite a bit in 2020?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: It's a really important conversation to be having with kids. Also, from the beginning, I think that both kids of color and white kids need to talk to their parents about race and racism, just in general, and politics is just one of those times in which it becomes really relevant and much easier, in some ways, conversation to have because whenever you hear someone say something on the news or you hear a politician make a statement, that's a great opportunity to say, "It sounds as though this is really what's going on."
We know from our study with kids that almost half of the kids-- We asked elementary school kids about the candidates that were running. This was Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. We asked the kids, "What do about these candidates? Do you have any idea of what they believe in?" and almost half of the sample made some comment about Trump's views on immigration, and a third of the entire sample spontaneously, on their own, mentioned that he wanted to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US.
Again, sometimes, it was skewed, so they thought to keep Black people out of the US, sometimes, they want to take all the people of color and move them away, but lots and lots of kids, almost half of the elementary school kids we interviewed across the country, had some reference to the political conversations on immigration, the Latinx kids in our study, the Black kids were really scared, the white kids were afraid of what would happen to their friends. Not only are they hearing these things about race and thinking these things about race, but it does breed a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety.
Those are really important times to talk about, "Well, what does it mean to be in America, where we all are really different, and that's something that's really great." For example, immigration is a big part of the conversations too, talking about how immigrants really enrich the United States in ways in which that can be a really positive thing and talk about that really concretely, and also, talking about racism and police, and the ways in which systematic racism play out every day is also part of conversations that you can have even with young children about treating people fairly. What does it mean to treat people fairly and not on the basis of their skin?
I think, ultimately, we have to be having conversations because kids are paying attention to race, they pay attention by the time they're three and four years old, and we need to help them process all of this complicated information, instead of just having them think about it on their own.
Emily Paisner: What about gender? Four years ago, we had a candidate that was potentially going to be our first female president, and this year, we have our first female, woman of color running for vice president. What does your research found about how gender may play into kid's political thoughts?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Well, we do know that kids really differ in terms of their understanding of how women have been represented in politics in the past. Before Hillary Clinton's candidacy in 2008, a study was done in which they asked why women had never been president, and this was just about a decade ago, one-third of girls thought it was against the law for a woman to be president-
Emily Paisner: Wow.
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: -and the realities of your child. This is really at the root of all of our research. What we see is that if you're a child, you look at the poster of all the presidents, and with the exception of one, they're all white men, and then, we have biracial men, but all men. It looks as though-- If you're a kid in a rule-based world where you're used to following the rules that adults set for you, it looks like somebody set a rule. It looks like there must be a rule that girls can't do this because no one's ever done it. It's a much more understandable explanation for why there's been such discrepancy in women's representation in politics.
I think that's part of, "We have to have those conversations with kids. Why do you think we don't see women running to be president? Why have we never had a woman that's president?" We asked kids about who are women that have fought for women's rights in politics, we had one kid in the entire sample say Susan B. Anthony, 10 kids said Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the kids couldn't name anybody. Just understanding women's rights in terms of politics and suffrage is also just left completely out of the school curriculum, kids just don't know.
Then, kids assume that women don't want to be president is the other thing, that they don't want to. Kids endorse a lot of stereotypes about why; they would rather stay home, they would rather stay home and take care of their kids, they'd be scared to be the president. We saw that just four years ago. It's really that kids are paying attention, we're just not giving them better explanations.
Emily Paisner: Clearly, we have a lot of work to do, and I think it's time that we rewrite the rule books. Those are some pretty devastating thoughts that kids have shared around women in politics, and hopefully, that can change. Sometimes, in elections and life, we don't win. Sometimes, the candidate that we want to win loses. That's democracy, that's what it's all about, but it might be hard for kids to grasp that that's how the system works, especially, as you said, they're influenced by the adults in their lives and the communities that they live in if they've shown a lot of support for one candidate over another. How can we have conversations with our kids about winners and losers in our elections?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: I think part of it is the same way we would when our kids lose a soccer game too, is that talking about, "Well, someone had to win, and that just means that they had more people vote for them." What are things that we can do? For one, it's how to process the negative feelings that come along with losing. Art is a really good way for kids to express themselves. Teaching Tolerance is a great website. It's part of the Southern Poverty Law Center. One of their activities around this is having kids do like a collage of concerns as a way to express what their worries are, just to get out some of the negative feelings even if they can't really articulate them just yet.
Part of it is knowing, "Well, what are things that we can do even if the person we voted for isn't the winner? What are other things we can do?" Politics is very local, really. What can we do at the school level? What can we do in our town? What can we do in our neighborhood to make things better so that if we are-- Maybe we're not getting exactly what we want at the national level but we do have areas in which we can help.
Again, it's that helping kids feel a sense of agency. It helps you bolster that sense of, "Okay, even if the big thing didn't work out for us, I can have some smaller victories. I can ultimately help in smaller ways." It also makes us feel a little bit less out of control, which I think that's part of the problem of losing is you feel like, "Well, I did my part but it didn't make a difference." Well, there are other ways to make a difference. Thinking through what those can be is a positive spin on that loss.
Emily Paisner: What about for older kids, teenagers who are going to be able to vote in the near future? How do we talk to them about how they can get involved and start to make a difference?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: I was just as part of this webinar with this group of teens that were all teen activists, and it was just amazing to me, this group of 15, 16, 17-year-olds, the level of engagement and passion that they showed. For example, all of them were involved in voter registration tribes. A lot of them were getting involved in things about climate change, particularly, in terms of environmental justice, that there are ways to be involved for teens that are social activism that are really profound.
Part of it is looking at their schools. What can they do with their schools? Can they do a voter registration drive? Make sure that they're registered to vote. Make sure that they get their friends registered to vote. How can they start looking into the candidates that are going to be running in their first election so they can start doing research on who they are? Thinking about what are the issues that they care the most about and what are the groups and organizations they can join. There's a lot of organizations that want teen volunteers.
Part of it is just, again, turning that frustration into, "Well, what can you do?" because for adolescents, there are a lot of options. I think there's a lot of ways to be engaged. If they can't find things that speak to them, start a club at their school, find a way to create and find like-minded teens that they can think about what matters to them.
Emily Paisner: Are there any specific books or resources or exercises that you would recommend that parents can do with their kids to help them learn about politics and the elections, especially since we're about to have one here? Is there something that parents can do to help their kids understand this more?
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Yes, I mean, there's a lot of great children's books. There's also a lot of great books for the middle school and teen set. One of my favorite books for younger kids and elementary school kids is called Grace For President. I love it because, for one, it-- It's a black girl, so you see a little bit of representation. There's issues about gender and only voting for your own gender, so there's issues about gender bias. It happens to also teach you about the Electoral College as well. I find that-- It packs a lot of punch.
There's a lot of children's books. There's a couple of websites that I really like that I encourage parents to look at, one is Teaching Tolerance, just tolerance.org. Teaching Tolerance is the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a lot on civics and politics, particularly, the ways in which it intersects with race and gender. They have a lot of classroom resources and lessons that I've always just adapted for my own kids. It really can be taken out of the classroom.
Then, there's a great website called kidsvotingusa.org. There's a whole section just for parents. There's these family activity booklets that you can print out that are fun, but they also teach kids about the election. It's a great way to give kids an activity but they're also learning a lot, and it's a really good conversation starter. Those are all good for a range of ages, from younger kids all the way through adolescence.
Emily Paisner: I will absolutely be looking up some of those when we get off the phone, thank you. I could definitely use some help on how to talk to my kids about this time that we're living through right now. Christia, Thank you so much. This was such an insightful conversation. I am sure that a lot of parents like me are struggling to have these conversations right now, and this will be extremely helpful in doing so.
Dr. Christia Spears Brown: Oh, great. It was great to talk about it.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
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