As another national election approaches, conversations about politics — never the most benign topics to begin with — can become even more fraught. Entering into casual political discussions naturally calls for a bit more forethought and strategy than usual. Especially if we hope to remain on speaking terms with our wider circle of friends after Election Day.
For parents, negotiating political conversations with their own children can be even trickier. Most parents, for example, aim to strike a balance between protecting their children from the harsh realities of the world and preparing them for the raw truths they'll inevitably face as adults. They also want to foster independence of thought and behavior in their children. But parents, like all humans, welcome the validation that comes from seeing their own deeply held values mirrored by those they hold dear.
That ends up changing the basic parameters of political conversations. What is it safe to assume they already know? Are some topics entirely off-limits? At what point does parental guidance on political issues become parental pressure? And how can the learning process extend to both parent and child?
Erin Pahlke is an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla. She's also a parent of two children herself. Over the years she's conducted several studies that might help to answer some of these questions from a scientific standpoint.
"We did a study back in 2008 looking at kids' knowledge about the presidential election. We interviewed kids both before and after the election. And then we did it again in 2016," she says. To give some idea of their sample, the 2016 study during the Clinton-Trump race involved 187 elementary students across five different US cities.
Based on those results, Pahlke says there's a good chance that children aged 5 to 11 will have some awareness of what's happening in the national political arena.
"The vast majority of them knew the names of the presidential candidates, and they knew information about the candidates. Ninety percent of the kids could tell you at least one thing about their characteristics or their policies." The students who participated also claimed to have an active interest in politics.
That's helpful in identifying the starting point for political talk. But Pahlke is quick to note that broad awareness and interest doesn't necessarily equate to a fundamental grasp of processes and situations.
"You will talk to some kids who have clearly talked to people in their lives about the Electoral College, and you'll get a second-grader who can explain the Electoral College, but then you'll also get elementary-school-aged kids who, for example, think that Trump won because had the biggest airplane with his name on it. Or kids who know that there's voting involved, but they think that judges get to pick."
Some of that haziness comes down to where children get their information. In the absence of a trusted, reliable source, there's a risk that they'll pick up gossip, stereotypes and half-truths from playground peers or social media.
Furthermore, children of a certain age are primarily drawn to "concrete details" and "personal traits," Pahlke notes, which makes it harder — though not impossible — for them to appreciate nuance and abstractions. Younger children also have a fondness for tidy narratives. That can lead them to invent questionable explanations for social phenomena. During the 2016 survey, for instance, the students were asked why there had never been a female U.S. president.
"Only twenty-five percent attributed it to anything related to gender discrimination," she says. "The others said things like, 'It's because men are smarter and they read more books' or 'Men are better leaders.' We saw similar responses back in 2008 when we asked before the election why there had never been a non-White president before."
In later years, however, children do start to appreciate the larger social and cultural forces that shape today's political landscape. That's what Michael Buckley has found during his 24 years of teaching politics-related courses at the university level. In his political science class at Spokane Community College, he sees students as young as 15 as part of the school's Running Start program.
"If something's going to be graphic, I let students know. But we talk about some very heavy stuff. And the vast majority of students are able to handle it. I would say to parents, trust your [teenage] children. Don't be afraid to go there," he says.
As an instructor, one of Buckley's biggest concerns isn't students who are too vocal about their politics. It's those who are reticent and apathetic toward politics in general. That's why he encourages parents to discuss politics with their children from a young age.
"The reason I got interested is because my parents talked about politics at home, at the table. I remember my mother and father talking about Watergate. So if you listen to podcasts with your children and then have a conversation about those things, it's a great way to engage them."
And if those discussions get heated, parents need to be the role model and not let things devolve into name-calling. The risk of disagreement also isn't a reason to avoid political discussions altogether. In fact, disagreements can make for breakthrough, revelatory moments.
"Whether they're a strong liberal or conservative, if a parent is really trying to figure out how to get their kid to engage in discourse, it's incumbent upon the parent to understand the argument they disagree with," he says. Above all, "parents need to let their children know how important it is to understand government, because government affects so much of our lives."
Pahlke acknowledges that there's currently "so much rancor in politics" that it can be tough to talk about something as straightforward as the role of the city council or congressional term limits. "But you have to."
When voting guides and ballots arrive in the mail, she suggests that parents review them with their children to pass along "some of that basic civic education."
"Children are paying attention to politics from a young age, and they're trying to make sense of what they see and hear," she says. "We as adults need to help them to understand the process in order to keep them engaged and interested in politics as they grow older."