The 2016 presidential election has thrown marriages into disarray, pushed the level of hateful rhetoric to an apex and has asked deep questions about the strength of our democracy. One group of Americans not involved in the political process, but directly exposed to its toxic rhetorical fallout, are children.
Politics is often a central topic of conversation in households, particularly in election years. “This election cycle has left kids and parents in unchartered territory,” Dr. Stephanie O’Leary, a clinical psychologist who works with children and parents, told Red, White & Blog.
“Kids are just as confused and overwhelmed as grown-ups. They look to their parents and grown-ups for reference, viewing them as role models. When parents condone inappropriate or hostile rhetoric, that rubs off on children, and the effect is real,” added Dr. O’Leary.
Dr. O’Leary has two children, a 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “The way children react to the heightened intensity of this election can have two very different outcomes to the eventual political activity of these kids,” continued Dr. O’Leary. “Either they will be completely turned off from politics, or they might be galvanized to become more involved.”
Her own children have expressed significantly different approaches. “I’m so glad I don’t have to think about voting until I’m 18,” the doctor's daughter once told her.
With a completely different approach, her 8-year-old son seems ready to have his voice heard: “Why can’t I vote again, Mommy? Because I have very strong ideas.”
We are paving the road for our children’s political future, explains Dr. O’Leary. Children just old enough to understand political parties and the meaning of news reports will see this election as the norm in American politics.
“You don’t have to talk about everything, but when a child asks questions about what they are hearing at school or on TV, parents have to engage with their children.”
“Listen to what your kid knows, and share the facts as we know them," she adds. "Sometimes, you have to bite the inside of our cheek and let them get to the punchline on their own.”
Children will be strongly influenced by their parents up to a certain age, at which point, they inevitably begin to disagree with parental figures. Sharing facts rather than opinion helps children learn to think critically, and it engenders a more positive interaction with politics for the future.