The Right Way to Talk About Politics With Your Kids, According to Experts

By Gail Cornwall for

Especially when political matters feel raw and lack civility, a parent’s initial reflex can be to shield their children from the discourse around the election. But the experts say we ought to do otherwise, encouraging an exchange of age-appropriate information and ideas about political institutions, politicians, and policy stances.

In a 2016 survey conducted by the company, nearly 90% of parents who didn’t discuss politics with their kids said it was because they were too young to understand. But Judith Myers-Walls, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of child development at Purdue University, says the first stage of “they just don’t get it” doesn’t last long: “Children as young as 3 have some understanding,” she says.

Preschoolers may have a vague sense that a political world exists and is split into two groups, since this is right around the age children develop a sense of “us” and “them,” explains Jill S. Greenlee, Ph.D., associate professor of Politics and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. And their intense focus on fairness opens the door to rudimentary discussions of justice, according to Erin Pahlke, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College.

As they reach school age, children understand concrete political details but abstract concepts still tend to elude them. In the last election, for example, the issue kids talked about most was immigration, because a border wall is a very tangible thing. But their thinking tends to be black and white, says Meagan Patterson, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Kansas, which — when combined with their information source being snippets of overheard conversations — produces fearful misunderstandings.

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