Little kids can say some pretty entertaining things. In an election year, the chatter coming from the child department may be extra amusing.
"Who does Daddy like?" my friend recently asked her 2-year-old. "Trumple!" she screamed out with the mischievous look of a toddler who is about to get a reaction out of her mom. My friend corrected her that the family was for Biden.
"Biiii-den," she repeated while looking at her mom, and a moment later she was back to chanting "Daddy likes Trumple" as she ran around and giggled. We all laughed, wondering where do they learn this stuff anyway?
Children learn "this stuff" everywhere, as it turns out. Political talk is on constant display on television, on social media, at the dinner table, at school and in the adult conversations kids overhear every day. Don't think that children are not paying attention and piecing it all together — that would be an inaccurate underestimation of their ever-absorbent brains.
As adults, we may have long ago picked a side, dug in our heels and surrounded ourselves with people who agree with us; but when it comes to the children in our lives, there is good reason to rethink the way we talk about politics and perhaps even expose them to the other side.
The dangers of division for children
"As early as preschool, kids start to identify with one group over another and develop a sense of who they are and where they fit in in the world," said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School co-founder of Brainstorm, Stanford's lab for mental health innovation.
Being surrounded by members of only one group as their identity is developing may deprive children of important skills. "I worry that kids who grow up strictly on one side of the political divide will miss out on learning how to engage in disagreements in a civil way later in life," Chaudhary said.
Small children are also concrete thinkers who see the world in simple "good" or "bad" terms.
When parents talk about how strongly they disagree with other people, children start to interpret it as "those are bad people," said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.
Defining people as good or bad based solely on whether they agree with us or not sends the wrong message to children and contributes to the existing division in this country.
"Younger children just aren't yet able to separate (ideas from people)," Chaudhary said. Although adults may at times want to label a person with a disagreeable idea as a bad person, "that type of discourse is best left for the grown-up discussions."
Resisting the labels and rethinking the way we frame issues around children may bring large benefits.
Start modeling good behavior
"In time, 2020 will define this generation," said Ginsburg, who is also the author of "Building Resilience in Children and Teens." In addition to being an election year, 2020 is the year they had to be separated from friends and family due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It's also a year marked by a societal awakening to long-standing racial injustices.
"When (this generation) comes back together, when they're able to hug their grandparents again, go to schools and learn next to each other, worship together — they're going to have an appreciation for the power of human connection and presence like no one else ever has," Ginsburg said.
This generation too has the potential to become the problem solvers our country badly needs. "All of the ingredients are in place, except the adults are not modeling proper behavior," he added. "We are squandering this amazing opportunity."
What's needed from the adults
"Kids are listening and observing our own actions and reactions to the world," explained Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
She frequently sees parents discuss difficult conversations around children, without addressing them directly.
"Parenting is hard. It takes a lot of growth and self-awareness to manage our own needs, emotions and challenges," Robles-Ramamurthy said. "In my clinical practice and my personal life, I strive to discuss values and morals that are important to me without trying to impose my own needs onto my children," she added.
Values and morals, instead of labels, may be the better way to bring children into the conversation, allowing them to feel included.
"Each family's values and morals are different. Our values and morals are shaped largely by those around us, and they tend to change over time as we go through new experiences" Robles-Ramamurthy said.
Each family concerns' when it comes to the upcoming election will vary, too. The concerns of a Black family may be different from those of a White or Latino family. The concerns of parents who are employed may be different from those who have lost their jobs.
"My hope is that parents will have the self-awareness and courage to discuss their own concerns, challenges and fears with their kids in a way that is developmentally appropriate," Robles-Ramamurthy said.
She recommends involving children in problem solving to address the family's needs and engaging them in supporting their peers and community members when your family is doing well.
And when it comes to disagreements, the experts agree they too can be teachable moments.
Embracing the disagreements
"Navigating disagreements with grace and respecting views that are different from your own are tangible skills that can and should be taught during childhood," Chaudhary said.
In an election year, it may feel as though every disagreement is about politics, but that's simply not true, Ginsburg explained.
Human beings have disagreements in our daily lives, and it's these interactions that give parents an opportunity to model behavior — to hear the other point of view, to consider what others are thinking and feeling, why their experiences in life make them feel this way, to be empathetic to their points of view and then share your own.
Both Chaudhary and Robles-Ramamurthy also recommend role playing disagreements about difficult topics or engaging a family member who may not share your political views.
If you are going to do this, you should prepare yourself and the other family member ahead of time to agree on the appropriate information to share in front of children and how you may cordially end a discussion even when you don't agree with each other.
When the kids are able to watch you navigate the small disagreements — the movie to watch, what's for dinner, and so on, and then move on to the big ones, challenging conversations no longer need to happen behind closed doors.
"Kids learn so much by observing," Robles-Ramamurthy said.
When you've allowed space for disagreement in your home, there may eventually come a day your kids don't agree with you. This, Ginsburg said, should not be seen as a rejection of your values, but rather as a sign your kids may be seeing things you've stopped seeing.
Adults have learned to avert their eyes to injustice, to things that just aren't working in our communities, and adolescents are designed to see those things. Developmentally, teens are supposed to challenge the status quo, to ask why things can't be better.
"We rely on adolescents' vision," Ginsburg said.
This vision, when nourished, supported and equipped with the skills to engage and empathize with others, will without a doubt guide us all to a better future.