If I’m being perfectly honest, I shielded my kids from most of the election coverage and chatter during the past year. Yes, we talked about our values and why I would vote the way I did. We talked about the fact that there are two sides to every story, and that the beauty of America is that we all have a voice. We talked a lot about hopes and dreams for our country.
They did not watch the debates. They did not watch news coverage of the debates. They read information specifically curated for kids on websites created for kids that was straightforward and without opinions, but they were not exposed to the adult version of politics this time around.
When they wanted to watch the election returns, I let them tune in until bedtime. When they went to bed, they were full of hope. Sadly, when they went to school the next morning, they lost all hope.
“Does he really hate girls? Is he really building a giant wall around our country? Is he sending people away?” These are just a few of the questions that came my way that day. And then the protests began and I found myself in a circular conversation about feelings, checks and balances, and acting as agents of kindness.
When news of the riots hit, I decided to get ahead of it and talk to my kids about the current emotional climate of our country. Little kids worry about their own safety and the safety of those they care about. Burying the news is hard to do when kids are talking at recess, and simple phrases like, “everything is fine” or “none of that will actually happen,” aren’t all that reassuring (and possibly not true).
Try these talking points to help your child understand what’s happening in the country right now:
1. Be honest, but brief. Kids need facts. Specifically, kids are looking for facts so that they can understand what they hear and so that they can feel comforted and safe. Explain what a peaceful protest is and why people organize them. Next, talk about why protests sometimes turn into riots and discuss people who help when crowds of people become violent or unsafe.
2. Discuss your own emotions. A great place to start is by talking about your own emotions. How did you feel when the election results came in? How do you feel now? Kids are often shielded from the emotions of adults until a situation becomes intense. It’s hard for little kids to process big emotions in real time and they often feel scared as a result.
3. Explain how feelings fuel reactions. When people are angry, they sometimes say or do things they wouldn’t normally do. That’s the case with riots. People want to feel heard so the assemble and protest, but when they feel ignored or dismissed they become frustrated and angry.
4. Address their worries. Many children are worried that their friends will either be treated badly by others, feel sad and hurt, or, worse yet, be deported. The best way to address your child’s feelings is to ask open-ended questions. “Can you tell me why you’re feeling worried about our country right now?” is a great place to begin. If your child freezes up, get a little more specific. “Are you worried about someone or something specific?”
5. Stop the jokes. Children struggle to process and understand sarcasm. What adults use to deflect big feelings is actually quite confusing to little kids. Unless you are actually planning a move to Canada, stop joking about it. You’re scaring your kids.
6. Talk about democracy. Because this election was so divided (and so volatile), many kids feel it the power is in the hands of one man. I spent nearly an hour describing the House of Representatives, the Senate, the various cabinet positions, and the Supreme Court to my kids the other day. Our government has a system of checks and balances. While we can’t say for sure what will happen over the next four years, we can reassure our children that one man does not make all of the decisions and every voice continues to count. Have your kids write a letter to your representative!
7. Encourage kindness. Michelle Obama nearly broke the Internet when she said, “When they go low, we go high.” That’s an important message for our children right now. Yes, they might encounter some negative comments or behavior that makes them uncomfortable, but they don’t have to stand by in silence. Kids have the power to light up the world with kindness and compassion.
Teach your kids to stand up to unkind behavior, to get help when they can’t stand alone, and to spread kindness every single day.
As I said to my own children the morning after the election, “It’s up to us to spread kindness, show compassion, and be there for people who need a hand.”