Talking to kids about politics can help them think critically and form their own opinions. Here’s how two political experts discuss politics with their own children in an era of political division.
One aspect of raising self-sufficient kids is to help them become critical thinkers and form their own opinions and points of view on important issues. A great way to practice these skills with your kids is by discussing politics.
Politics can seem like dangerous emotional territory, but in many ways there’s no better opportunity to teach kids how to think for themselves..
But how can parents accomplish this in a meaningful and healthy way, especially amidst today’s tense political climate?
For advice on this and other related questions, I turned to two experts in not just politics, but constructive political dialog. They’re also both parents – Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers – the creators of the podcast, Pantsuit Politics.
Sarah and Beth created the Pantsuit Politics podcast in 2015 as a way to showcase a bipartisan discussion about politics that seeks to find common ground. They’re known for coaching listeners, and readers of their book, on how to constructively communicate with friends and family members of different political persuasions.
In my opinion, the combination of their focus on teaching others how to discuss sensitive political issues, and being parents themselves, make them the perfect people with whom to discuss how parents can best talk to kids about politics in a way that fosters independent thinking.
The following is a discussion I had recently with Sarah and Beth. The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kerry: I’m so excited to talk to both of you. I’ll jump in with my first question: how do you talk to your own kids about politics, especially in this climate where there’s so much division and so many strong opinions about a wide range of issues?
Sarah: Well, it’s been really interesting. I think Beth and I have similar but complementary styles. The similarity is that we’re both very open and honest with our kids. We don’t try to protect our kids from politics or the news. We welcome any and all questions.
Beth always says how our kids feel walking away from the conversation is almost as important as what we tell them. They need to feel like their questions are welcome and their thoughts are welcome. That’s something we both really use as a guiding light.
I’m probably more instructive in my approach. For example, I’m more than happy to be like: “This is how I feel about this,” or, “This is who I support in this election and this is why.” Not because I’m trying to indoctrinate them, but because my kids want to know how I feel and I’m pretty open emotionally with my kids.
My kids know I can definitely have a strong feeling about something and I still love them and they can disagree with me. It’s sort of how we roll generally. We talk about politics a lot in my house, because my kids hear a lot of it in school among friends so it’s something that’s an ongoing conversation we’re always engaging in.
Beth: Where I live is very conservative. My eight-year-old, Jane, will come home with extreme talking points [from friends and classmates about political issues] pretty frequently.
After reading a number of articles [on one of the issues Jane heard others talking about at school] I went back to Jane and said: “You know how you told me this thing that your friend said the other day? Well, I looked into it and here’s what I learned.”
I think it made an impression on her – probably more than the subject matter itself – that I took what she said seriously enough to go away and think about it and find some information to come back to her.
That’s really how I try to approach politics with her: with a whole lot of respect because I especially feel that when raising girls, it’s important for me to constantly send the message that your questions are important, your ideas are important.
Where I differ from Sarah a little bit is that I will freely share my opinion after my daughter has asked for it, but I always ask her what she thinks before I tell her what I think. Because I so much want her to be an independent-minded person who believes that what she has to say is important.
Kerry: Do you wait for her to say, “So mom, what do you think about this issue?” Or do you ask her and say, “Would you like me to tell you what I think about this issue?”
Beth: It’s usually a little bit more organic than that. An example that Sarah and I share a lot is that both of our kids have come home with the talking point, “I heard Hillary Clinton kills babies”. When that happened with Jane, I explained what abortion is in really neutral terms. I said, “You know, people who say that Hillary Clinton likes to kill babies mean they believe there should be a law that you must have a baby that you are pregnant with. And people who like Hillary Clinton believe there shouldn’t be a law – that you should make that decision with your doctor and your family.'” Then she asked, “What do you think?”
I said, “Well, I’d love to hear what you think,” and then she told me. Then I will often say back to her, “I agree with you,” or, “I see that a little differently,” or, “Here’s where I am on it.”
Sarah: I never thought about it until this moment, but I do think the difference in the way we engage with our kids is driven a lot by the gender of our children. Beth has girls and I have all boys. It’s very important to me that they see a strong female asserting a strong opinion. That that’s normal for them to see.
They’re growing up in a household where politics is Mom’s world. I ran for office, I’ve hosted political podcasts and so my little boys know I’m an expert on politics. If I were a doctor, and they came and asked me about medicine, I wouldn’t say, “What do you think?” I would say: “This is what’s happening.” I want them to be comfortable with female expertise – especially in male-dominated areas like politics and especially because they’re boys.
I will say, I think there’s a balance to be struck because I think it’s just as beneficial for Beth’s girls to see their mom as an expert in this male-dominated area as it is for them to explore their own voices and opinions. I started that balance too, it’s not like I just tell my son: “Well, this is how it is.” But, I do say: “You know, this is what I think about it. What do you think?”
Beth: I think some of the most interesting conversations we have with our kids about politics are not about these national controversial hot button issues or even gubernatorial ones. We can talk about a golf course in our community that the county owns and how they’re managing it, for example. Or why their school has a school safety officer. Some of the things that are more concrete to them provide good opportunities to say, “Hey, do you know how this works?” “Do you know how we get our mail?”
Just educating kids in civics provides such a good foundation. You don’t have to bring in any controversy there, it’s just stating the facts like, “Well, we pay taxes and those taxes go into this system and it’s managed by these people. When we go vote for this, we’re electing the people who make decisions about how we get our mail.” Things like that.
Kerry: That’s an excellent point. My next question is: What do you do if, say, you have a family member who has very, very different political viewpoints than your own, how do you talk to your kids about that family member?
Beth: Well, Sarah has more experience with this than I do. You want to talk about your dad, Sarah?
Sarah: Yes. Well, it’s kind of interesting because my father is of a very different political persuasion than I am, but he also lives very far away. He is not an ever-present person in my children’s lives. I don’t know how aware they are that we feel differently about things.
My stepfather is very present in my boy’s lives. He also supports a different political party, but he’s not an extremist in the same way my father is. I think it’s been really interesting to watch, not just the way my stepfather influences my kids, but how they influence him.
My stepfather is the odd man out in our family politically and he likes to see how my kids feel about certain issues. And the questions they’ve asked him have been so interesting. I’m really proud that my kids see this situation where my stepfather is one of the most generous people on planet earth and so they say: “We love Papa Ron [even though] we disagree about all these things.” I think it’s a really good example.
Beth: We are in that situation with my inlaws. My inlaws voted for Trump and my daughter knows that. She has brought it up a few times, saying, “Oh, how could they like him?” I always say, the first thing is that we love them and we don’t have to understand every decision they make.
Really, that’s how I’ve talked to her about all manner of things that my in-laws and I disagree on. I don’t think politics is that different from how we arrange our house and lives. They have different rules at their house. So I’ll say to my kids: let’s talk about why we have the rules we have in our house. It’s the same thing with politics for me. We love them first. Yes, there are differences and here’s why we are where we are.
Kerry: That’s a good one to start with. “We love them first.” Have you ever talked to your kids about political bias in the media and fake news?
Beth: I never use the term fake news with them, I just say, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. You have to think about who’s telling you this and why and who has checked this, and who else says the same thing. Are other people out there saying something different? Why do you think you saw that particular YouTube video? Let’s talk about how YouTube chooses what to show you next.”
To me, it’s less about being fearful of the things that feel like this dramatic shift to us and more thinking how do I raise somebody who is reasonably skeptical of information so that she knows what questions to ask in deciding what’s real.
Kerry: That’s good. Have your kids ever come to you with something that is clearly fake news?
Beth: Well, let me give you an example of how this played out in my house in a benign way. Our 4-year-old came home from preschool singing a song about the five oceans. My husband and I were like, “There are not five oceans, they’re four oceans.” She said, “No, there are five oceans.” She sings a little song and she’s like Atlantic and Pacific, Indian and Southern, Arctic too.”
We’re like, “There’s not a Southern ocean. What are you talking about?” Our eight-year-old chimes in, “Yes, there is Southern Ocean. We did the research process in front of them and talked about, “Well, this site, we’re not going to look at this one. You know Encyclopedia Britannica? That’s a pretty reliable source.” Then we said, “Okay, girls, you’re right, there is a new ocean that we were not taught about in school.”
Then we talked about how hard it is to have grown up believing that Pluto was a planet and there were four oceans, and to have that stuff change and how when things are changing you do want to be really sure you’re looking for good [information] sources. I think that was such an empowering moment for both of them. First of all, it was just funny, we laughed our heads off about Mom and Dad being wrong about the number of oceans. But I really think they’ll remember that as a time when we showed them, here’s how we find the answers to questions.
Kerry: How can parents share their political values with their kids while also trying to raise independent thinkers?
Sarah: It’s like Beth said, politics is just about how we live in the community together and it’s a discussion of our values more than anything else. Just like anything else with parenting, you’re showing your children your values and how you want to live in the world by the decisions you make. If you’re angry and all you do is complain about the other side, then your children are going to grow up angry and see the other side as their enemy. If you’re kind and you work in the community and try to give back then that’s what your children are going to see.
You can’t decide what your values are and have conversations with them that are totally absent how you actually engage in the world. Your kids are going to see that. It’s true of parenting, it’s true of relationships, it’s true of education, it’s true of politics.
Kerry: Yes, that’s so hard. How do you handle scary topics with your children – such as climate change, for example? It’s important to discuss these topics but what about the fear it can create in kids?
Sarah: Not all children, but many, many, many children and adults are struggling with anxiety right now. First of all, I think in the same way that politics is a discussion about values, we need to have a conversation as a culture about anxiety.
Why do we have so many children struggling with anxiety? What you see from the research and from the experts on anxiety is that psychiatrists are starting to recognize that we have to give kids opportunities to face what they are afraid of and tackle it. The instinct to protect them is so strong when you’re a parent and it’s true with politics, with anything else.
Kids are still going to know what’s happening. Information is out there in the world, they’re going to absorb it, but then also absorb that cultural anxiety. You can either decide that we’re going to face this as a family and talk about it – be honest about things that are beyond our control and how we exercise our values when we face those hard things beyond our control. Or you can let kids fill in the blanks in their own head. I’m not really a big fan of letting my children fill in the blanks in their own heads. I don’t think that does anyone any good. It’s not easy.
I think trusting kids with the intensity of the truth, and giving them the chance to see that, yes, we can be anxious and we can be sad and life still goes on. That’s the best gift you can give your children.
Kerry: So true.
Beth: I was going to say that I think sex is a good parallel to talking about politics with kids because I think part of what creates so much anxiety for parents and talking about sex is that you feel like it’s this one conversation and you’re going to lay it all out in this big reveal, and you need to not screw up that conversation. When the healthier way to talk about sex is to have it be just part of the conversation often. Not that you’re looking for opportunities to bring it up but thinking about all the things that are related to sex that you can constantly be teaching. For example, your body has integrity, you respect other people’s bodies, etc. things like that.
I feel like it’s the same as politics, and especially with topics that are scary. We talk about climate change very rarely in terms of, “Oh my gosh, there could be famine and war over resources and refugees.” I think that’s a lot for an eight-year-old to carry around, but when it gets to that point, we’ll have those conversations, “Hey, people are pretty worried about where this could go. There could be some really challenging things during your lifetime happening, and right now, what we need to do is think about how we can take better care of the planet.” I think it’s just like sex. You just keep bringing it around.
I believe one of the reasons – and this is just my intuition – we have so much anxiety is because of how much we refuse to talk about it.
Kerry: That’s a good point.
Beth: Refusing to talk about a certain topic just makes it scarier and scarier and bigger. It’s Voldemort, right? We just have to name things and talk about what they are and lean into them and believe in our own resilience to a point. I think the more we just do that and make it normal, the easier it gets for everybody.
Kerry: Yes, that’s a really excellent point. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to share these insights today. I really appreciate it.
Beth: Thank you so much. Thanks for inviting us to do this.
Sarah: Thank you.
After our discussion, I realized that Sarah and Beth had laid out, in their answers to my questions, a list of key points for how parents can help their kids be self-sufficient in their thinking about politics. And I realized that many of the same principles apply to political thinking as to other aspects of kids’ lives.
Here’s the list I extracted from our discussion:
- Be open and honest with your kids about how you feel about politics
- Be sure to ask kids how they feel on particular issues, and more importantly why
- Express openness to all of your kids’ opinions – even the difficult, hot-button ones
- A great way to show kids your respect and really engage them is taking the time to thoughtfully answer their questions, even researching for additional information if necessary
- Mothers can model female expertise in politics by voicing their opinions, which benefits both girls and boys
- Talking to kids about local politics they can easily relate to can help children better grasp how political systems operate
- Emphasize to kids that while you may disagree politically with a relative, you still love and respect them.
Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland are the cohosts of Pantsuit Politics and coauthors of I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations.
Beth spent eleven years as a restructuring attorney and then as a human resources executive in a Cincinnati-based law firm before becoming a business coach in January 2018.
Ten years ago, Sarah left her life as a Capitol Hill staffer behind to move back to her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, to raise a family. In 2016, she went back to politics in a big way when she knocked on 5,523 doors to win election to the Paducah City Commission, where she served a single term.
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