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How to talk to your kids about voting and the election

Sofia Cach, 11, uses cursive writing in preparing an essay about New Year's resolutions for her language arts class at Millennial Tech Middle School, San Diego, Calif., January 10, 2024
M.G. Perez
Sofia Cach, 11, uses cursive writing in preparing an essay about New Year's resolutions for her language arts class at Millennial Tech Middle School, San Diego, Calif., January 10, 2024

Politics can be a difficult subject to discuss with children. But, as they grow and begin to understand the fundamentals of civics and how people choose their local and national leaders, the subject is also hard to avoid.

So, how do you talk to older kids about voting and elections? Here are some pro-tips from Wilson Middle School history teacher Michael Williams and Jeff Hoffman, psychologist with the San Diego Unified School District, who spoke to KPBS about the resources kids can use inside and outside the classroom, and how they can foster their curiosity at home.

Why it matters

Voting allows people to come together as a community to make a collective decision. It fosters democracy and allows for a fair process in electing local and national leaders. It involves rules and making hard decisions independently. Hoffman remarked that kids are smart and often "take things literally."


Williams teaches the importance of civic duties and responsibilities in his sixth and seventh grade history classes. He believes that the fundamentals of understanding the way our society is governed is crucial for kids to learn inside and outside the classroom.

"Eventually (kids) are going to become adults who are part of our democracy," Williams said. "If ... we're using a democratic system that relies on the people, then we have to rely on people being educated and having knowledge and their understanding and making their own decisions. And the earlier (kids) kind of begin to understand it, the more likely when they get to a voting age where, A — they're gonna participate and B — be informed voters."

Start small

Explaining politics is a daunting task, but the best way to start is to take small steps. When introducing complicated topics, experts suggest asking kids about what they already know about voting and where they're hearing about it. Experts suggest taking a "civically-minded" walk outside. "Talk about what institutions are public and what are private. So which things have we decided as a community that we're going to support, like road-building, or parks or libraries?" John Hopkins professor Ashley Berner told NPR.

Hoffman encourages having an open and respectful discussion about civics between parents and guardians with their kids.

"If you don't have those discussions, then there's no way to openly discuss questions that they might have," Hoffman said. "(It's) a very powerful message to send ... and as we know, governments, our government and the elections ... that we put into place can have a huge impact on the lives of the constituents with which they represent or not represent."


Experts suggest to show kids how the voting process works is by exemplifying it at home. Take a vote over menial family matters, such as what everyone feels like eating for dinner. Chicken or tofu? Pasta or pizza? Take a vote and make a secret ballot, announce the winner and explain the results.

How to introduce tough topics

Billboards, bumper stickers, TikTok, television; social media and advertisements can dominate conversations outside of the home during election season. What do experts suggest parents do to introduce tough topics brought up from the media?

Give space to ask questions

Allow kids to voice their curiosity and concerns in a safe space. Ask them what they know and how they feel about the topic. Hoffman suggested that tough and uncomfortable topics should be taken head-on and answered as honestly as possible with age-appropriate restrictions.

"You don't want to overwhelm kids with real gory details," Hoffman said "Like you're talking about war ... or why (the U.S.) fought in this war, that war, whatever it happens to be. When those types of questions come up, I think (be) factual without overly glamorizing the violent part of (the question)."

You don't have to know all the answers

Parents or caretakers can get stumped when it comes to answering tough questions surrounding political topics during election time. Hoffman said it's okay not to know all the answers.

"I think it's okay for parents to admit, 'I don't know the answer to this either. Let's look at this together. ...' Because there are questions that kids ask that parents don't have the answer to, especially about details of like, political and military conflicts," he said. "Model how you find out things when you don't know the answer, and doing it with your child makes that a powerful experience for both of you."

Where can I find resources?

Answering difficult topics of discussion is one thing, but knowing about the topic is another. Not all parents or guardians are info savvy and up-to-date on current affairs, however, there is an abundance of resources parents and kids can utilize and find together and introduce trusted news sources that can be evaluated independently.

BrainPop is an educational website that hosts over 1,000 short animated films for K-8 students. Teachers and parents can access the website and engage in subjects like science, social studies, English, math, engineering and technology, health, arts and music.

The Week Junior is a magazine subscription kids can read current-event topics with age-appropriate language and information.

PBS is a packed with information that is catered to children and adults. It can help ease the burden of tackling easy and tough questions from voting, elections and other sensitive topics.

Hoffman suggested talking to the child's school and finding out what is being taught in their history and social studies classes. That way, parents can look into their textbook references and find a list of sources and bibliographies listed. Other resources can be located at the local library. Parents and caregivers can ask their librarians to pull together materials that are age appropriate on topics children are curious about.

Williams said when races and elections do come up in the classroom, he shows his students news programs that talk about election topics.

"The way we approach it is in a couple of different ways," Williams said. "One, in my class, we start every period by showing them a little five minute news wrap up done by CNN called CNN 10. We cover all the different stories of the day, and as we get into elections they begin to talk about it."

How to diffuse disagreements

Families can be a hodge-podge of mixed ideas and opinions, and sometimes not all ideas overlap and may clash. So, how do you make peace with contrasting ideas at home?

Don't demonize the opposing side

Kids will have their own opinions on various subjects. Some can be opposing to that of their families. Researchers advise parents to expose a range of opinions to kids to teach them how to respect those opinions and respectfully argue their own.

"In terms of the whole classroom culture, and this obviously is way beyond just our election lessons, is just trying to have a classroom culture that is respectful," Williams said. "Do kind of basic things like raise your hand; make sure you're using appropriate language when you're, if you're discussing something; be respectful of the fact that what you are saying could be tough for somebody else. If it's their opinion, they are allowed to say it."

Williams ensures that students refrain from making offensive remarks, and if they do, it's crucial to explain why it's offensive. Sometimes, children may repeat something they've seen online without realizing it's offensive to others.

Sharing values

Sharing family values with kids can be a great way to reason and explain someone's political views and understanding, according to children mental health experts. Communicate why a candidate, proposition or law matters and how that can affect their community or way of living in a positive manner.

To demonstrate the pros and cons of a decision, use a basic example. It can be as simple as talking about the pros and cons of eating vegetables or choosing a weekend trip.

  • Pro: Eating vegetables provides the necessary vitamins and minerals to promote a balanced and nutritious diet.
  • Con: Maybe they don't taste as great as other unhealthier foods.

Kids and civic engagement

It's never too early to show the importance of civic duty, and the best way kids can participate is by learning more about their community. Hoffman suggested parents who are politically connected and minded can take their children to a political rally of a candidate they might support or sit in on a court trial and observe the proceedings to show how various entities of government work. Other suggestions are taking kids to their school board meetings and have them observe how decisions that affect them directly are made.

"(It would) be very interesting, I think, for kids to see that stuff they take for granted are things that have to be decisions that are made by political entities in order to allow schools, for example, to function," Hoffman said. "So having those direct experiences are very powerful."

While attending political rallies and courts may seem more appropriate for older children, parents of younger kids can ask them about their passions to find charities that align with their values and donate to that cause.

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