Talking to Your Kids About the News: Government & Community
Your child probably doesn't follow politics or civil rights issues, but even in non-election years, it's likely that he hears about what's going on in Washington D.C. and any big state issues just from word of mouth and TV teasers. The best way to find out if he knows about government affairs is simply to ask if he's heard about demonstrations, new laws, elections, or whatever is currently on the news.
Younger children (under age 8) may not be interested in more than the essentials of government and civics, and even then, may only remain interested if it applies to them. So, when you're trying to explain about Election Day, she might be more interested in how one actually votes than what the result of an election are. That's okay — you can still stress the importance of voting just by taking your child with you to your polling place and letting her see you take the time and effort to vote. When she does have questions, try to relate large issues to the small ways it might affect her life or the lives of people she knows. For example, talk about the time you marched on Washington instead of abstractly discussing the importance of freedom of speech and protest. Answer questions honestly and clearly, but don't go into unnecessary detail.
It's a good idea to discuss your own opinions and feelings about what's going on in your community and with politics, which is another way to show that these issues matter to you and are worth thinking and talking about.
For older children (grades 3-8), use the following tips to help guide you:
1. Watch the News with Your Child
The easiest way to find out and monitor what your child knows about politics is to sit down together and watch the news. Find a program that isn't overly sensational (try local news and weekend shows) and talk about what you see. It doesn't have to be a formal talk about the issues — in fact, that will probably bore your child. Instead, just ask if he has any questions or feelings about the stories as they appear. Another great way to supervise and encourage an interest in civics is to sit down and read the newspaper together. It's also a great way to build reading skills and can be done anywhere, anytime.
Keep an encyclopedia, atlas, and/or dictionary on hand while watching the news. You'll be able to locate areas and define words that are discussed, as well as look up basic facts about different branches of the government, and important dates in civil rights.
2. Find the Answers Together and Explore More
Your child may have questions you don't know the answer to. Instead of making something up or simply saying you don't know, tell her, "That's an interesting question. Let's find the answer together." Then open the encyclopedia or search the Internet to explore and research the answer. While you're investigating, give your opinions, but don't state them as absolutes, so your child feels comfortable expressing her own feelings, even if they seem to contradict yours. It's a great opportunity to stress that your views are only your own personal opinion, and that it is part of our American heritage to allow other people to disagree and express their own beliefs.
Encourage your child to find out more on her own with kids news sources like Scholastic News, which are written specifically for a middle school audience.
3. Keep Up With the News at School
Your child's teacher may require the class to follow politics, or they may be studying democracy's history as part of the curriculum. Or, talk of elections and civil rights may just be interwoven with peer gossip. Ask him or his teacher about what is being discussed at school. Invite your child to tell you what schoolmates think and feel about the government and civics. Find out if there is a student council at his school. Are there any rules that he thinks are unfair? If so, how would go about changing them? The microcosm of school provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss the issues in the world at large.
Take advantage of the opportunity to use news of government and community issues as a springboard into larger topics about the importance of voting, freedom of expression, and even what role government should play.
4. Keep an Open Ear and Mind
Be open to listening and answering your child's concerns about politics and civil rights at all times. You may not be able to engage her in discussion or make her watch the news with you, but she may ask a question about the President while you're doing your shopping or are just driving around; a kid's mind doesn't always make the most linear connections. If it isn't a convenient time to talk, tell her that you want to talk more about it later and set a time so you make sure your child understands that it's important to you to talk with her. Also respect her wishes if she doesn't want to talk at a certain time and revisit the discussion later.
Be ready to discuss any topic again, and often. Your child's understanding of her place in the community and the way government works will change as she grows older. Creating an open, engaging atmosphere for these topics now will encourage her to come to you with her questions and concerns later.