While our children can’t vote, they are absolutely paying attention during this presidential election cycle. According to Erin Oltersdorf and Shary Zampert, founders of Kids’ Compassion Project (KCP), this can be an opportunity to engage in positive conversation with children about compassion.
For Oltersdorf, this realization hit home recently when her children began commenting on the election. “Our 9-year old came home and gave me her opinions on two of the candidates. Our 7-year old has asked about why candidates are “so mean to each other” in the commercials. We had not intentionally engaged them in politics, so I was initially surprised, but then realized we could turn this into positive conversations.”
Zampert adds, “Your kids are listening in on this process, so we encourage you to use the opportunity to engage them in conversations that will build compassion.”
According to local psychologist Dr. Kerry Makin-Byrd, “Children are observant and inquisitive. The old saying little pitchers have big ears is really true. Although a child may seem absorbed in play, at least part of their attention is also on their parents and the other important figures in their life. Kids absorb much more than we realize, and this is amplified when a central event or issue such as this election cycle takes center stage, both in the media and in the mind of the adults around them.”
Dr. Makin-Byrd collaborated with Kids’ Compassion Project to develop the following advice that anyone, regardless of political view, can use to engage in conversations with children about the presidential campaign:
- Empower a child’s imagination: Talk to children about how they would change things if they were president. Who would they help and how would they do it? What are the most important things they would like to improve? All their answers can be used to think about ways your child an your family can make small changes here and now, in your neighborhood, your school, and your community. This outward and empathetic focus is the perspective shift that helps strengthen compassion in them.
- Even the ugly side of politics can be a teaching moment: If the volatility of some of the current political discourse comes up, use it to talk about healthy conflict and respect. It’s OK to disagree and to debate, but emphasize how important respect is, or treating others how you would like to be treated Ask them what respect looks like to them. How does a child show respect to their parents, teachers, and friends and how do these role models in turn show respect to the child? Together think of some examples of times when each of you have disagreed with someone but still shown respect.
- Work to speak with the same balance and kindness that you expect of your children: Monitor what your children hear from you as you discuss the candidate or candidates you support. If you do talk about specific candidates, focus on the positive elements they bring to the table, and what positive impact you’d like to see them make.
- Watch the negativity: Avoid letting children hear disparaging or demeaning comments about a candidate. If you are pointing out what you believe are weaknesses or stances with which you disagree, be sure to model an approach that demonstrates respect and avoids a personal attack. You may feel so strongly about the issue that it is easy to miss an opportunity to discuss it in a developmentally appropriate way. An example might be “I don’t agree with candidate X because he/she believes A and B. I believe C and support people who have a similar view.
- Avoid the doomsday commentary: Try to stay away from broad, doom-and-gloom negative statements. Imagine how difficult it is for kids when they hear comments like “our country is going to go down the tubes if this person is elected, etc.” Convey what positive things you care about and the work to be done to make those changes.
- Practice taking a different perspective: A key way we increase our compassion muscle is by practicing seeing an issue from a different perspective. The same skills that serve children well on the school yard will serve them well into adulthood, as they negotiate jobs, relationships, and neighborhoods with people who think differently than they do. You can foster that now by talking about different ways people may see the same political issue and applying it to things in a child’s own life. For example, why do some people like public playgrounds more while others like to have a private playground in their backyard? Sibling conflict is a great place to practice perspective taking.
Between now and November, the volume of the political process will only increase. By introducing these concepts now, you are laying the groundwork for great conversations and growth as your child develops.
About Kids’ Compassion Project: Kids’ Compassion Project is a Denver non-profit striving to make the world a better place by building compassion in children. For more information and to learn about upcoming events, view the KCP website at https://www.kidscompassionproject.org or call (720) 772-1543
About Dr. Kerry Makin-Byrd: Dr. Makin-Byrd is a clinical psychologist based in Stapleton, Denver who has over a decade of experience working with children and families. More information at http://drkerrymakinbyrd.com/