As the nation moves closer to voting for its next president, it has become nearly impossible to avoid daily election coverage. Every debate is analyzed, every new poll dissected, and every tweet scrutinized, bringing out the good, the bad, and the ugly. As voters prepare to go to the polls, an unlikely constituency is becoming absorbed in all of the coverage, our kids.
Despite not being able to vote, children have become increasingly aware of this year’s election, as well as the negativity surrounding the current political climate. In the eighth annual State of the Kid report conducted by Highlights Magazine, the vast majority of kids (80%) said they were discussing the presidential election at home. While it is encouraging that so many children are taking note of political issues at a young age, other results may be cause for concern.
Among the highlights of the study, kids seem to associate politics with stress. 65% of children said they would not want to be president when they grew up, and 41% of children responded the job would be too demanding or stressful. 18% of children stated they would want the president to know that being a child is stressful.
“The big element that’s a takeaway is the stress and anxiety going up with kids,” says psychologist Michele Borba, a Parent Toolkit expert and former State of the Kid contributor. She noted that in other surveys “children talked about stress at least three times in the results even though they weren’t specifically asked how stressed they were.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator that this election season might be inducing stress in children is what they think the first thing the next president should do when they get into office. 50% of all respondents said that keeping the country safe should be the top priority of the next commander in chief.
The response doesn’t surprise Borba. According to her, this has been a trend in children’s research, saying “safety and stress keep coming up as benchmarks of children’s concern levels, where they didn’t before.”
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Sasha L. Ribic, one of the contributor’s to this years’ State of the Kid Survey, points out that that concern for safety has been building among children because it is part of their reality. She says, “children are growing up experiencing national security issues as well as the backlash surrounding security issues, so it is prevalent in their world.”
Technology might be the culprit. “Just ten years ago, parents could turn the TV channel and be much more proactive in monitoring images their children were seeing,” said Borba. Now, children are hearing more and more about these issues during the election cycle, and with a greater access to technology, they are more likely to feel unsafe.
Dr. Ribic also believes that the focus on safety and security can be attributed to children’s moral development. “Adults are basically telling kids things like ‘be kind’ or ‘tell the truth’ and teaching them about who is safe and who is unsafe,” said Ribic. “These are central concepts in raising our children.”
But parents can be pro-active by talking to their kids to help lessen the stress and worry they’re feeling, rather than try to shield them from election coverage and social media, both Borba and Ribic say.
Borba encourages parents to sit and watch events like presidential debates together. By focusing the conversation on the positive aspects of the election, such as the freedom to debate and disagree, parents can allow kids to “recognize that this is an extraordinary, wonderful thing called democracy.”
She maintains that parents need to be guides for their children amid a sea of negativity, offering them a source of hope. “What the report is showing you,” she says, “is that children are concerned, but they also need someone to talk them through it and say yeah there are some bad things happening but there are some fabulous people out there, and the world is a good place.”
Ribic adds that parents, who may have strong opinions in such a volatile election, should try to explore what their children’s thoughts are, rather than imposing their opinions on their kids. She says that parents should ask open ended questions, such as “what do you think about this issue, or tell me what you think about what this candidate said” in order to get a gauge of their children’s thoughts.
Both experts agree that this election presents an opportune time for parents to educate their children about civics. Dr. Ribic supports parents getting their children involved in the political process. She says “kids can get involved with volunteering, or community outreach, and help people in different walks of life. Parents can also take kids to the polls on Election Day to inspire kids and also bring them hope in such a negative election season.” She believes this also allows children to feel more secure because, “by getting kids involved in the process, parents are giving their kids control.”
It may be tough to see how extreme and unpredictable politics are affecting our children, though the State of the Kid report shows that they are listening. By only seeing the negative, Borba says “what happens is that children become so concerned and see the doom and gloom, and they dial down their empathy.” Instead, parents can focus on positive message, because when they do “it opens up their trust level and kids see that the world is a good place.”