Raising citizens: Tips to help parents teach their kids about the political process
For the Deseret News
When Kris and Rachael Lundeberg’s 9-year-old son comes to them with a political question, they do their best not to tell him their opinions.
Instead, they try to present both sides of the issue by researching it with their son and showing him where he can find information on the internet. They stay away from saying one side is right or wrong.
“We want to raise (our children) to be independent thinkers and not just follow what the news says or what friends or people say to them — to do their own research,” Rachael Lundeberg said.
The Lundebergs said they limit their four children’s exposure to the sometimes venomous political discourse on TV and from other sources, and they try to help their kids feel comfortable coming to them with questions about what they hear or see.
“I think the number one thing is that we don’t get upset,” Kris Lundeberg said.
The Lundeberg’s situation is an example of what many parents are facing during the 2016 election cycle. Political discussions are everywhere from television to social media to the grocery store. Children are not oblivious to the politically charged atmosphere, and experts say there are ways for parents to help their children be comfortable with the political process.
“One of the most significant factors of whether adolescents anticipate participating in politics later in life is how much they discuss politics with their parents,” said Jessica Preece, assistant professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of Political Science.
Here are some other tips to help parents introduce their children to politics and prepare them to participate in the future.
Dixie State University education professor Deanne Murray instructs aspiring teachers on how to teach civics in the classroom. She believes children are ready to start learning about the political process as early as kindergarten.
“You learn to be a citizen at a very young age,” she said. “And you need to be taught those skills.”
She said adults should teach young children about the political system, how they can be good citizens and how to have productive political discussions. Parents can simplify politics for young children by using issues that relate directly to their lives.
“Don’t make it scary,” she said. “We want them to feel engagement with the whole political process instead of being scared of it.”
Have open discussions
Murray teaches her students to facilitate classroom conversations so children can practice participating in constructive political dialogue.
“Even students at a young age can learn a lot about discussing political issues in a fair and even way, and — even if it’s very simple — to listen to each other … and to be able to deal with ideas that maybe they don’t agree with,” she said.
Preece said parents can create these same opportunities for children both by having these kinds of discussions and by explicitly teaching children to respect the ideas of others — even if they are different. As parents discuss their own political values with children, they should make an effort to explain the reasoning behind their views, she said.
“I think it’s really important for parents to really express why they hold specific political values,” she said. “Especially as (children) get older, they’re going to want to understand the logic behind parents’ positions on particular issues.”
As parents and children have meaningful, open discussions about political topics, children learn to listen more effectively and to accept others’ opinions, a skill Murray said is vital. Additionally, adults can directly address today’s sometimes hostile political climate with kids.
“They’ve heard a lot of the vitriol, and they need to be aware that that happens often in politics, but it doesn’t have to happen,” Murray said. “There are ways of talking to people that you disagree with that can be productive.”
The Lundebergs encourage their children to come to them with questions and seek to teach them respectful discussion skills.
“We try to teach them that you can have a conversation and it doesn’t have to be a fight,” Kris Lundeberg said.
According to Preece, parents can also set clear standards for their children.
“I think parents need to set family norms of respect and civility for people that have differing opinions,” she said. “A democratic society works best when people have competing positions on issues and there’s a marketplace of ideas.”
Validate them and give them space
Preece studies differences in political participation between genders and has found that women receive more negative feedback than men about their political participation and that girls tend to disengage from politics after high school, while boys become more engaged.
As parents have political conversations with their children, Preece said, they should ensure that their daughters are involved as much as their sons.
“One of the really important things for parents to think about is … making sure that the girls understand and know that their voices are important and that an important part of being a good citizen is participating in politics,” she said.
As children test the political waters, parents should let them develop their own opinions while validating their interest. Mellenthin suggested presenting things as fairly as possible and then “helping (kids) pass their own judgment.”
And what if kids come to conclusions that differ from those of their parents? Preece said that’s a natural part of development.
“It’s important for parents to leave some space for children to disagree or to try out new ideas,” she said. “That’s an important part of developing critical thinking in children.”
Preece said kids might eventually adopt their parents’ way of thinking anyway, but they should have space to come to those conclusions on their own.
Set a good example
Don Herrin, an associate family and consumer studies professor at the University of Utah, studies how the human brain assigns value to views and opinions. He said the kinds of views and beliefs children grow up holding are highly dependent on experience.
“We define ourselves differently as a function of our experience,” he said.
Preece emphasized the power of example, saying if children see parents participating positively in the political process, they will likely do so as well.
“Every time you go vote, you put on the sticker or you take them with you … they notice that the thing that responsible adults do is that they go vote,” she said.
But just as kids notice their parents participating positively, they will also notice negative political behaviors, Preece noted. Therefore, it is important to set examples of civility and respect when discussing political issues.
“Children are going to pick up on it when their parents are being a little hypocritical,” Preece said. “If they say it’s important to respect other people and then they turn around and say derogatory things about people they disagree with, children will pick up on that.”
“Kids are really adept and are listening to the conversations we’re having as adults, so just being mindful of how we talk about things in front of our children is really important,” she said.
For the Lundebergs, teaching their children how to participate in politics is the same as teaching them how to participate in anything: They focus on teaching their kids to be respectful and informed.
“It’s important for us to send out good citizens into the world, whether it’s in politics or otherwise,” Rachael Lundeberg said.
Many resources are available for helping children understand politics. For ideas for activities parents can do with their children, Preece recommended using the Boy Scouts of America merit badges on citizenship as well as the Girl Scouts badges on the same topics.
Murray recommended icivics.org for engaging learning activities, and Mellenthin suggested the “Kid President” YouTube videos for helping children learn about the world around them.