Feeling at a loss about how to talk to your kids about this election? Certainly we’ve never seen anything like it. Parents having to snap off the TV news when children are in the room. A high school history teacher apologizing to his students for instructing them to watch a presidential debate. Young children asking uncomfortable questions about crude terms you never dreamed they’d hear. This is a challenging time for parents who are trying to teach their kids to be thoughtful, respectful, and honest.
If ever there were a teachable moment in American politics, this is it! While many of us are feeling the need to put our heads under a pillow and refuse to come out until November 9, we have a real need and a responsibility to talk to our children about two important subjects: our values and our actions.
Values—the roadmap for life. One of the things that’s been so upsetting about witnessing the fighting, the name-calling, the accusations, and the schoolyard behavior in this election is the way that these behaviors clash with so many of the fundamental values we try to teach our children—honesty, respect, tolerance, and above all, the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated. I think one of the most important things we can do is to provide our kids with a set of guiding principles that serve as a roadmap for how to behave as a decent person and a good citizen for the rest of their lives. First, we parents need to model those values in the way we behave each day—and admit our mistakes when we don’t get it right.
We also need to talk, specifically and in age-appropriate ways, with our children about the values we hold dear:
Actions: where the rubber meets the road. We’re guided by our values, but we’re judged by our actions. And actions, especially in children, are almost always inspired by feelings. That’s why one of our key jobs is to help our kids understand their emotions and learn to manage them appropriately. As my hero, Mr. Rogers, said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Research has shown that children—and adults—who can’t manage their emotions have more difficulties academically, professionally, socially, and psychologically. It’s never too early, or too late, to begin the process of helping children develop “emotional intelligence”—so that they learn to act with civility and respect, despite any bad examples they may see during election season.
Start by showing kids pictures of people in books or magazines and asking, “What do you think this person is feeling? Why do you think so? What might have made him feel this way?” Then use a mirror to have your child make a happy, angry, or sad face and see what those emotions look like in themselves. Help older children feel comfortable talking about their emotions by listening without judgment, and emphasizing that all feelings are okay. Then teach your children strategies for managing their emotions, whether it’s taking deep breaths and counting to ten to diffuse anger, or using positive self-talk to overcome fear or sadness. (You’ll find more strategies here.)
When children understand their own feelings and those of others, they can act with self-control, compassion, and empathy. When teens have developed emotional intelligence, they are better able to resist peer pressure and stay true to themselves. When young adults act responsibly, they will vote with care and conviction. Our world—and our endless election cycles!— will be better for it.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.