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Talking to Young Kids About the Presidential Election

When I was a kid I remember looking forward to elections. I loved seeing the signs outside and the watching the debates. And my favorite thing was that I got to vote at school. I vividly remember voting during the 1996 Clinton-Dole election. We got to color our ballots and everything! Then there was a super secret voting booth (probably a refrigerator box) where we cast our ballots.

That's what I remember about elections growing up.

Wow how things have changed...

You can't remove children from a world with troubling issues, but you CAN cultivate a sense of safety and security.

Young children should not bear the burden of worrying about how the results of the Presidential election threaten their safety and security.

In a perfect world, children would not have access to information that makes them feel unsafe and insecure. They would be buffered and surrounded with fluffy clouds and rainbows. But we don't live in a perfect world. Children are confronted by issues in their lives that have the potential of being very scary. Homelessness. Lack of healthcare. Deportation of a parent. Discrimination against their same-sex parents. And on and on.

It is impossible and unreasonable to expect that children will be completely sheltered from issues that affect their lives. They will undoubtedly get information from sources we wish they didn't, so we need to manage our responses so they reinforce feelings of safety.

I'm not calling for an information blackout. What I AM proposing is that we begin intentionally addressing these topics by first reassuring children they are safe, and when necessary, providing children with age-appropriate information.

So what happens when we don't lead with safety and focus on information instead?

Children interpret confusing events and complex information through the lens of adult emotions.

It is not the job of children to deal with adult emotions.

What emotions have we been modeling for our children during this election? Anxiety? Fear? Anger?

Have we talked about the election in ways that are developmentally appropriate for them?

Have we talked about the candidates in ways that have honored them as human beings?

Have we helped children process incidental information they have seen on TV about the election or information they've heard from friends at school?

Young children take on our feelings if we don't have good boundaries, and when I talk to my friends and colleagues serving children in schools, what I hear is pretty consistent:

Children are scared.

Children are angry.

Children don't feel safe.

Don't mishear me. It is completely appropriate for adults right now to be feeling scared, angry, and unsafe. However, it is not the job of children to carry those emotional burdens.

It is the job of parents and teachers to provide safe places and spaces for children to share and process.

What has happened has happened. We can't take back the exposure our children have had to adult issues and adult emotions. What we CAN do is provide meaningful ways for them to process that information and I want to share a story about how one teacher is doing that this election cycle.

Last week, Joel Pulis, an art teacher in an urban school in Dallas, shared an activity he did with his students on social media. He did a lesson where he discussed the power of art to help you speak out and encouraged students to take advantage of their freedom of speech. Then he gave them posters and let them communicate whatever message they wanted.

Their posters were inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Many of them had themes of systemic racism, cries for change, and showed deep anger towards President Trump. There's no doubt when viewing the posters that these children have had a strong experience either for the past four years or during this election cycle.

I'm not in a position to say whether the information they received was communicated with safety in mind and in an age-appropriate way. It could have been. But what I do know is that this group of children needed this activity to process what they were experiencing.

Reactions to this activity on social media were polarized. Some adults were angry that Joel had allowed this kind of expression to occur in his classroom and others were glad students had the opportunity to express their feelings.

From a lens of culturally responsive teaching, the activity was extraordinary. Children do not have control over their life experiences. They don't have control over what they've heard or how events have affected their lives. But in this moment, they had control over their expression and the power to speak up for themselves and WOW!, they leaned into the opportunity. You can check out their creations here:

What Kids Really Want and Need

When children come to us with anxieties and questions about this election, they aren't really wanting to know facts.

They're wanting to know they are safe.

They're wanting to know their dad isn't going to be deported.

They're wanting to know it's safe to walk in their neighborhoods.

They're wanting to know they'll still get their insulin every month.

Whether or not their anxieties are based on facts is irrelevant. Their fears are their fears. Kids don't care about politics. They don't care about policies. They just want to feel safe and secure. And it's our job as adults to be that reassuring presence and voice in their lives that let's them know that whoever the President of the United States is, we are in their corner and we've got their back.

So as you talk with your children and your students about the election and the events that will unfold over the course of the next few months and possibly years, your response should be:

"I hear that you're ________(insert feeling) AND you're safe here with me."

Because that's really all they want to hear from the most important adult in their lives today.

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