3 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Politics

It’s okay to talk to your kids about politics. In fact, it's a good idea — if you do it the right way. Here’s how.

Mothers and their children with Moms Clean Air Force walk to meet up with other protesters for the Global Climate Strike protests on September 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum / Getty

A video of my three-year-old “singing” a song he wrote about Bernie went a bit viral recently. His message got a lot of internet love: “Bernie Sanders wants us to make the world better . . . right away!!” He got it. The world needs fixing, it’s urgent, and Bernie wants to help us do it.

A few people, though, had complaints about my parenting. One said, “He is clearly not old enough to understand politics. There’s no need for this forced indoctrination.”

I found this insulting to my child — and all children, for that matter. But it made me think: How old do you have to be to understand politics? How do you define politics? If it’s think-tank policy papers, lobbying strategies, and political maneuverings on Capitol Hill, then sure, leave my kid out of it. But if it’s an outline of the injustices of the world, and the necessity of a fight for things to be better, then we need everyone, especially the children — who often have a clearer and more hopeful understanding of reality than we do.

There’s a lot that children don’t know yet, obviously. But children growing up in Syria know a lot more about war, about borders, about the distribution of resources than they should have to know — and probably understand those issues a lot more clearly and with more honesty than many adults who are removed from those realities.

My own child, who I’m grateful doesn’t yet know about war, likes to talk a lot about how we’re trying to make the world better. Specifically, he says he would like to live in a world where his parents don’t have to work so much. Where schools have more adults that could pay attention to him and the others in his class. Where he could cry and be scared and be himself without being told to be a “big boy.”

“We’re going to make the world better,” he often tells me. Then he’ll follow up with one or another goal: “We’re going to have more trains.”

He sees that we pay for everything. He sees people asking for money on the subway. And he asks us about them. It would be a lot more confusing to him if we pretended no one was begging for change and didn’t talk about it. The implicit message of our silence would be that it was okay, and if he couldn’t understand it, it was just his confusion. One of the things that first clicked for him about Bernie’s campaign was that Bernie thinks “everyone should share” — that it’s not fair that a very few people have so many things, and that most people don’t have the things that they need.

I’ve spent many years as an activist, but I was reticent to “talk politics” with my kid, in an effort to let him be his own person. But I also don’t want to insult his intelligence by assuming that he can’t understand, or underestimate his capacity to engage with the world around him.

As EJ Dickson recently wrote for Rolling Stone, “There is a long, long history of children in activism, with many risking their own welfare to put themselves on the front lines for their beliefs,” from black children who marched in Birmingham against segregation, to striking child textile workers, to the children of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

There are far too many things that we’ve become numb to as adults because we’ve had to get along in this world as it is. We need people in our movement that are not completely numb yet, and whose expectations of change have not been so lowered. In many ways, their picture of the world is a lot less fuzzy than ours. This is the reason that young people are now playing leading roles in the movement for climate justice.

There are, of course, differences between what a five-year-old and a ten-year-old and a sixteen-year-old might contribute. But the common thread is that we need all their ideas and agency in this fight. With that said, here are three unsolicited tips for talking to kids about politics.

1. Follow their lead in what they want to talk about and when.

Follow what excites them, what they ask questions about, and what they have opinions about.

My three-year-old first got enchanted by Bernie when I had the Democratic debate on during dinner. I explained that these people all have different ideas about what we need to do to make the world a better place, and that I liked that guy named Bernie Sanders because he says a lot of things that make sense to me.

For the next half hour, my son grilled me about other candidates throughout the debate. “Do you like that guy?” he asked when Cory Booker was speaking. “Not so much,” I replied. “Why? What does he say?” “Do you like her?” he asked of Elizabeth Warren. “Well, I don’t think what she’s saying is true,” I responded. “Why not? What is she saying? What is true?” Then Bernie would talk. “Is that Brownie Sander [his first name for him]? What does he say?”

These questions would go on and on, and I realized that he was learning that there are different ideas out there, and that we can argue them out. And that his mom prefers the kind of grouchy one who shakes his finger and tells the truth about the problems in the world.

2. Be thoughtful about what makes things clearer for them and what is more than they can handle.

So many of the world’s problems are genuinely terrifying: children in cages, the world heating up, police violence against people of color. Many children don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which of these issues they’d like to think about. But, to the extent that you and your kids have a choice, take advantage of it to help them engage with the world at a pace that they can handle. There’s no formula for this. But as adults, we can do our best to pay attention to when they are excitedly participating in a conversation and when their eyes glaze over.

When my family headed to the climate strike together, my son was pretty jazzed at the idea of a protest — that we would be getting together with lots and lots of other people who want to shout out together about the things we want to change. We talked about the earth and needing to take care of it, and that right now it’s not being taken care of well.

When I broached the subject of global warming, I quickly backed off. The look on his face told me that it was incomprehensible. Not because I got into the weeds of the science (I didn’t), but because it was just too scary and life-threatening of an idea to drop on a three-year-old.

I stopped there. We had broached the question of the environment, and he was interested in the idea that the earth is something we not only live on but take care of. We talked about how good trains are because it means we can all use them together and not bother the planet too much. This only increased his love of trains. Better to save the really scary stuff for when he’s better equipped to handle it.

3. We are fully capable of making the world better than it is now.

All of our problems are temporary and completely human-made. Things are really wrong, but the cause lies in how the system is currently set up, and not in anything timeless or intrinsic to humankind. We are part of a movement that knows we can do better. Letting this perspective frame conversations — that many of us are working together to right what’s wrong in the world — helps keep both you and your kid from getting sunk in hopelessness.

It’s this last point that got my son really excited about Bernie. When I come home from canvassing for our first socialist president, my son asks me about Bernie — about what he says, about why I like him. The questions go on. “Well,” I explained, “Bernie wants to help fix the things that aren’t working well right now.” “Like what? What’s not working well?” he responds. And off we go.

Bernie’s campaign has amassed unparalleled youth support. Young children, too, understand that everyone should have enough to eat, be able to go to school, and see a doctor anytime they need to. The truth is that Bernie’s politics aren’t so much partisan as they are common sense to human beings and our intrinsic sense of justice and fairness. Children understand this. So talk to them about it.