Teaching our kids to talk politics (nicely)

In September 2004, I was driving on a single lane road in Chester County with my toddler son in his car seat. The windows were rolled down and I was singing along with the radio while my son dozed. Suddenly a car pulled up next to me and the driver started screaming obscenities at me because there was a John Kerry bumper sticker on my car. There were no other cars around and until he sped off, I was frightened.

Fast forward to 2008. My son was going to preschool five days a week and I was working part time. My daughter, age three, went to preschool on the mornings that I worked and when I was off, we hung out at the Obama campaign headquarters in our neighborhood. It was a busy but kid-friendly place and the volunteer leaders encouraged her to scribble with markers on the signs that I was working on. It is a very sweet memory for me — though not one that she remembers well.

Before the the 2012 election, I was sitting with my kids at our dining room table with a support worker for my son (who has autism). I asked our support worker what he thought of President Obama. He shared an angry, impassioned response against him. I responded calmly and changed the subject. My daughter asked me later why he got so angry when I mentioned Obama.

And now here we are in 2016, in what for many of us, is already a surreal presidential race. We are not only seeing a lack of civility and respect during debates, but we are now witnessing violence at rallies and campaign events. As parents, we want to teach and model civility and respect for our children no matter what our views and party alliegences are — and yet, how much more of a challenge to do so when some of our presidential candidiates don’t show simple decorum?

We need to work even harder to teach our kids about the importance of democracy and speaking out against uncivil behavior. There is an important Jewish teaching that inspires me: “In a world where there are no menshchen (decent human beings), strive to be a mensch.”

In a campaign where menshclekeit (acting with civility) is missing, here are some ways that we can model decorum around the election for our kids:

  • Choose your news sources carefully There are some wonderful news sources available that are written with kids in mind. Scholastic News Kids Press Corps(written by teens!) and Time for Kids are two that will share articles written for children’s academic and social-emotional development.
  • Turn off the TV and/or critically analyze campaign ads Campaign ads feed us the worst of the rhetoric that is out there. Turn it off or fast forward through it. If your children are older and are able to understand persuasion, take time together to analyze why a campaign would create a negative ad. Engage kids in using their creative skills to write a positive commercial for their favorite candidate.
  • Use “I believe” when sharing your views Much of the “debating” that we see is focused on undercutting other’s perspectives. To encourage our children to grow up respecting different perspectives, it’s important for us to acknowledge that there are other ways to look at issues beside our own. Even when it comes to our most certain political convictions, we can use “I believe” rather than asserting our beliefs as an absolute truth. “I believe XYZ about (climate change, the economy, religious freedom, etc.)…others may believe differently.”
  • Invite children to imagine themselves as leaders “If you were president, what would you like to make better in our country?” Encourage them to write letters or emails to your representatives (local, state and national) about their ideas.
  • Model civility When you encounter someone who shows you hostility (such as the driver who yelled about my bumper sticker), keep your cool and model the respect that you want to see in your children. Notice if you lose your temper and yell at the TV after watching campaign coverage. Our kids are watching us and even if the candidates aren’t good role models, we can do better for our kids.

Who knows? One of our kids may grow up to run the country someday. Don’t you want them to behave better than what we’ve seen so far this election season?

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