How to talk to kids about politics: Because understanding democracy is important

Experts weigh in on how to help kids feel informed and empowered, while keeping it age-appropriate.
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/ Source: TODAY

Politics are pretty toxic as the U.S. presidential election draws near, and grown-ups don't always model the best behavior for teaching respect and civility. So, how should parents talk to their kids about politics?

TODAY Parents asked experts for the best ways to talk to children about what they're seeing and hearing — from explaining differences in political opinions to filtering the barrage of campaign ads.

Politics for kids

Edmond David Hally is an associate professor at Ferrum College in Virginia and teaches classes about politics to elementary-aged kids via Outschool, an online marketplace of live interactive classes.

Hally says the central lesson to express to children is that most people, regardless of their political party, have similar goals.

"They want to see their families safe, they want good jobs and they want to be proud of their country," said Hally, who has a PhD in political science. "They often have different ideas about how to achieve these goals, but even if some people express themselves in very heated ways, the vast majority of people aren't loud or rude or opinionated about politics."

He says he tells his students, "Don't let the loudest, angriest people you see on news broadcasts lead you to believe everyone is like that."

Here are some healthy ways Hally and other experts say parents can walk their kids through this year's election.

Give an overview of the election process

Dana Blackmore, an attorney and law professor who also teaches classes through Outschool, says explaining the difference between federal and state elections, primary and general elections and the differences between the Republican and Democrat parties is a good place to start.

"Talking to them about the selection of the candidates gives you an opportunity to ease into the topic of political parties," said Blackmore, who has an Outschool course about elections and voting for kids ages 12-17 starting in October. "Since this is a sensitive area that brings about a little bit of contention, as we can see in these very polarizing political times right now, we just want to graze over that area by explaining the two main parties ... simply that these are just two parties that have different opinions about how the government should handle different issues."

Blackmore says it's also a good idea to explain what qualifies someone to run for president and to tackle explaining the electoral college, a topic that can seem complicated to kids (and adults, honestly).

"The way I've explained (the electoral college) to my elementary school classes in the past is that each state is worth a certain number of 'points,'" offered Hally. "You can win a state by a few votes or a few million and get all the points for that state. Whoever gets to 270 'points' wins."

Help kids understand differing political views

In Blackmore's classes, students are encouraged to give their perspective, then listen to the perspectives of others.

"We learn that in a democracy, which is the founding principle of how our country is set up, it is healthy for people to have different opinions," said Blackmore. "Students get a chance to see what issues are important to them, then we also talk about how particular issues may be more important to people who call themselves Democrats and some other issues may be more important to people who have a tendency to think and appreciate more Republican values."

Hally says while parents may think it's inappropriate to discuss politics, it's important for kids to see the adults in their lives have conversations with people who view things differently than they do.

"I think part of the reason the country seems so divided is that discussion of politics is often taboo and that allows us to fall victim to the echo chamber," said Hally. "Whenever I talk to people with different political beliefs, I often try to legitimately understand why they believe what they believe ... I often don't end up changing my opinions after talking to people I disagree with, but I find I have more in common with them than I would have assumed before."

How to watch the debates with kids

"While I do like to show students real life examples of what's going on, I like to edit that material so that it is age appropriate," said Blackmore of the upcoming televised debates. "I would not allow children to watch the debates live because we have no idea of what can be said in response to some of the questions that may be asked."

Blackmore suggests showing kids small snippets of a debate after it airs.

Tracy Leeds Kaplan is the creator of "The Ten News," an iHeartRadio original podcast and news-focused show for kids ages 8-12, which will air a special episode with a history lesson on debates this week. Leeds Kaplan agrees that families should use their own discretion when deciding what debate coverage to watch.

"This is a unique election year and it's really up to each family to decide if watching the debates will be age-appropriate for their children," said Leeds Kaplan, adding that there are perks to checking out some coverage. "I like to think of the debates as a good moment to teach critical thinking about media coverage in elections. What are the issues that get covered in the debate? Are they the ones that your family cares about? Did the candidates actually answer the question or talk around it?"

To get kids involved in watching debates, Leeds Kaplan also recommends having a conversation together as a family beforehand to discuss which topics your family wants to understand the candidate's positions on.

Lead and listen

Leeds Kaplan says parents can lead discussions with their kids by asking and listening to what their kids currently know about the election.

"In most cases, it's what they think they know," Leeds Kaplan added, explaining the goal of her podcast is to help provide context around what kids are overhearing and seeing on the news. "We want to create an opportunity for kids to have fact-based conversations with their parents or guardians. It's important to give kids a sense of control over what's happening in the world right now."

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