Talking Politics With Your Children
By: Sarah Cole Camerer, M.Ed., LMHC
Shrewsbury Counseling Center, LLC
As the presidential election nears, I am asked all kinds of questions by my 5 year old twins… but not the kind you’d expect. Some of the recent topics included: “How do politicians choose the color of their signs?”; “Is the president ‘the boss’ of the country?” and “Why do the <opposing candidates> hate each other?” I work with kids of all ages in my psycho-therapy practice, as well as being a mother of three, so I thought it would be interesting to do a little experiment about how children learn and understand the political process as they grow up. Here are a few of the things I learned.
My first opportunity for gathering data was when I volunteered in my children’s kindergarten classroom a few weeks ago. I was doing an activity that had me sitting with four 5/6 year olds at a time. I asked each of them who the president was, what they understood about the election and what they found interesting about it. Their answers were enlightening. About half of them knew that Barack Obama was our president and about half of them knew he was up for re-election against Mitt Romney. Others knew the general concept of what the president does, but on a very basic level.
When I asked about the upcoming presidential election, the children who had any input basically parroted things they had heard from their parents, such as “Barack Obama is a bad man who wants to take my daddy’s money”, or “Mitt Romney makes it hard for my mommy to work.” I was both refreshed and disturbed by the influence parents seem to have on their children’s understanding of the political process.
When I expanded my research to older children, the same trend seemed to be evident, although not always as cut and dry as far as personal candidate choices. It seems that between the ages of 5 and 10, most parents try to create an interest in the process by taking their children to vote or hold candidate’s signs at election time. The majority do not discuss who they are voting for or get into the details about the ‘issues’ at this age range, but rather the election process itself, the importance of voting and to respect government. Many will wait to introduce politics until their children ask them about it.
Between the ages of 10 – 15, children are learning more about politics socially and at school. They are taught the basics of how our government is structured, the political parties and about the voting process. Socially, they are learning the “playground politics” that teaches them about popularity and the differences in those around them. At home, many parents encourage their children to watch debates with them and to ask questions. They learn more about protecting our freedoms as a country and start to develop an understanding of how these political decisions affect them personally. Usually, during this age range, children are aware of who the candidates are (presidential mainly) and how their leadership will dictate things like school, health care and financial decisions.
Over the age of 16, most teens have an active understanding of the government and politics in general, but will mainly align themselves with their parents politically. It is not until they are out in the “real world”, that the majority of our youth graduate to their own standards and political ideals. The influence of parents seems to be the strongest indicator of how much interest and involvement their children will have once they reach voting age. It would not be a bad idea to create more awareness and help for parents looking to approach the issue of politics with their children. As they say, knowledge is power!