If you're in the United States, Happy Election Day! You've probably already been fielding questions from your child about the election. (If you're not in the United States, we understand that you're probably ready to stop hearing about it. So are we. Soon, we promise.)
This post will give you language to answer questions about electoral politics in an age-appropriate way for kids from preschoolers to teens. While you may consider politics a mess that is fit only for adults, your child is certainly hearing about the election and drawing conclusions. Why not take the opportunity to have discussions that develop critical thinking, good citizenship, and values?
But first, let's talk about involving your child in voting. If you haven't already, please be sure to vote and make your voice heard. Let's teach our children to advocate for the future that we want for our country. And let's show our country that families matter and have a powerful voice.
Check here to find out where your polling place is: https://www.vote411.org/. Also at that link, the League of Women Voters is partnering with Lyft to provide Free Rides to Vote! Just use the Lyft app and enter code LWV2020 for up to $15 to a polling place or ballot dropbox.
Yes, there may be a line if you vote in person. But that's part of the lesson -- Voting is such a privilege that we're willing to endure a little discomfort to do it. People all over the world have fought and sometimes died for the right to vote. Bring masks, an umbrella, snacks, and some books about voting to read as you wait. (There are links to several good ones below.) After you vote, take a photo (outside the polling place) and post it on social media #FamilyVote to inspire other parents.
Below is your age by age guide with talking points and questions to ask your child, to help them understand the electoral process and this unusual election. But first, some general guidelines.
- Turn off the news. Checking in periodically is more than sufficient. The roller coaster ride of rumors and fears shouldn't set the tone in your home, even on election day.
- Watch your own tendency to react strongly in front of your child. Kids take their cues from us, and our overreactions make them feel less safe. Calm yourself before you talk with your child.
- When your child asks you a question, first ask them what they have already heard about the issue, so that you can correct misinformation and alleviate anxiety. You may think democracy will suffer, over time, if one or the other of the candidates is elected, but your child might really be asking if they, and you, will be safe this week. So even more than giving your child information, you want to listen to their worries and reassure them. This is true for kids of all ages, even into the teen years.
- Don't be afraid to express your opinion, but back it up with facts. It's essential for kids to learn that civic conversations can be conducted with civility, and should be evidence-based, especially given our current civic atmosphere.
- When you speak with your child, resist the urge to vilify voters on the "other side." Many of us look at people who disagree with us and wonder 'How could they even think such a thing?' But all of us form opinions based on the information we get from our news sources and from social media. The person who disagrees with us is seeing completely different information on their social media feed and even from news sources, so they are forming completely different opinions about what is true. This is a problem your child's generation will have to grapple with, since ours has not been able to solve it. Use the opportunity to point this problem out to your child and discuss what this does to a democracy.
Explain that legally the election is not completed, and no winner can be declared, until all the votes are counted. Usually in the US, enough votes are counted that one candidate concedes (and the other is free to declare victory) on the night of an election. But this year, many people are voting by mail because of the pandemic. Because some states don't start counting mail-in ballots until election day, we may not have all the ballots counted for a week. Ask your child "What can we do to help everyone stay patient and peaceful until all the votes are counted, to protect the democratic process and ensure fairness?"
Kids this young should not be exposed to the news, but they will notice signs and the general excitement. Explain political issues in terms that your preschooler can relate to, like fairness.
- "Voting is one way that people make decisions about how we will live and work together. For instance, let's vote on whether to have pizza or pasta tonight."
- "The President is the most powerful leader in the government. We all vote so that everyone gets to say who they think should serve as President. If only certain people got to decide, then that wouldn't be fair, would it?"
- "Why do you think voting matters? That's right, if someone doesn't vote, they are letting everyone else decide for them."
- "All those signs in front of people's houses are showing who they plan to vote for. They're hoping that their sign will make you want to vote for the person they like. What do you think about that?"
- "How would you decide who to vote for? That's right, by whether you think they are a good person and have good ideas and will do good things."
- "People can disagree about whether or not something is a good idea for our country, and express their opinions, without attacking each other."
All of the above, plus:
- "No, the election is not a fraud. There are more people voting by mail than usual because of the covid virus, but in some states, like Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, most people have been voting by mail, for many years. There are many precautions in place to be sure that mailed-in ballots are valid."
- "Our democracy is set up so that lots of people are involved in making decisions. Who is President is important, but it is also important who is elected to Congress.”
- "If you were 18, who would you vote for? How would you make that decision?"
- "In our town, we will be voting about whether to fix the roads. That will mean paying more taxes, because we have to pay for the roads somehow. Taxes also pay for schools, libraries, hospitals and playgrounds. If we don't all chip in, who would pay for these things? Do you think that is worth it?"
- "Yes, as vote-counting continues, more of the new votes are likely to lean Democratic, because more Democrats voted early. But those are not "late" votes -- they were post-marked by the deadline and usually even received by the authorities before election day. The problem is that some Republican-controlled state legislatures refused to allow the counting of mail ballots as they arrived."
All of the above, plus:
- "No, there is no rule that all the votes need to be counted on election day. The law is that all votes need to be counted that were postmarked by that state's deadline, even if that takes weeks! That's one of the reasons the newly elected president isn't inaugurated for a few months after the election. Do you think it's important that everyone's votes get counted?"
- "Do you think all political ads tell the truth? How could you fact-check what they say? How do you know which sources to trust?"
- "All the votes get added up, and that is called the popular vote. But that isn't necessarily who wins the presidential election. The people in each state vote for who they want to be president, and they send “electors” to vote for that person in the Electoral College. There are 538 electors all together, so how many of those would you need to vote for you if you were running? That's right -- 270, which is half plus one."
- "Some people think the Electoral College isn't fair because the candidate who wins the electoral college vote may not win the popular vote, which means that the majority of Americans didn’t actually vote for that person. Other people think the Electoral College is a good way for states with fewer people to have an impact on the election. What do you think?"
All of the above, plus:
- "You are likely to see things on your social media feeds that alarm you. That's intentional, so that you'll keep clicking. The more time you spend on social media, the more money they make. In fact, the information you're seeing often is not true, to make it more inflammatory -- so you have to fact-check it. How does it make you feel to know you're being manipulated that way?"
- "When you see political information on social media, how do you know the source of it? What responsibility do you have for determining whether something is true before you repost it? How would you fact-check something? What sources do you trust?"
- "Why do you think other countries have tried to influence U.S. voters? What do they get out of it?"
- "Experts agree that voter fraud is very rare, because there's a five year prison sentence for committing it! The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, says there have been 'only a handful of voter fraud cases over the past few years.' The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy center, 'found that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than impersonate someone else at the polls.' (Quotes courtesy of the Poynter Institute.) Why do you think a candidate would falsely claim that there was voter fraud?"
WE COUNT! Video (Warning: There is one swear word, but this is a good intro for teens about why the election results may be delayed this year.)