The election season is in full swing, and the negative ads are inundating us. How do we help our children learn about the importance of democracy without encouraging them to fall into the polarization that is all around us?
First of all, it’s important for us to watch what we say. Words are powerful, and although it doesn’t seem like it, our children are listening to us. If our children hear us badmouthing particular political parties or candidates, then they pick up on the message that this fight is good against bad. This is particularly true for those children of elementary school age who naturally find comfort in understanding the dichotomy of good and bad and readily absorb their ideas about the world from parents and other influential adults in their lives.
“They want to figure things out,” says Tracy Hurd, in her essay “Children, Democracy and Unitarian Universalist Faith” in the UUA’s ”Faith Development in Families” resources. “They want to know good and bad. They are always categorizing; they’re very concrete.” As they attempt to make sense of their world and categorize things as a simple dichotomy, it is up to us as parents to help them see there is middle ground, and that there should be plenty of room for different perspectives in our democracy.
We can also take this opportunity to help our children become critical thinkers. Encourage older elementary age children (10+) and teenagers to be “fact-checkers.” When watching TV ads or online videos of candidates’ positions, start by asking them what they think of the assertions made by the advertisement. Do these seem realistic to you? Does this fit in with what you understand to be true? Then show them reliable, factual sources where they can find information that supports or refutes the assertion made.
Also, be available when they ask questions. For instance, when watching the Republican convention, my 17-year-old daughter asked what Mitt Romney meant by working for freedom of religion in his speech. Growing up Unitarian Universalist, this concept is very important to her. However, she also recognizes that in almost every other assertion he made, she disagreed with his position, particularly on the issues of reproductive freedom and the right to marry.
Unfortunately, his reasons for wanting freedom of religion bear little resemblance to hers. But she was thoughtful enough to clarify and ask for more information rather than just dismissing all of his ideas without considering whether or not there might be something they could agree upon—or accepting without question that this was indeed something they could find in common.
Finally, make sure they see you vote. Let them know that voting is not a choice but an important responsibility. So many people fought hard (and died) for the right to vote. When we throw that away, we throw away our voice in this democracy.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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