Over the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep politics out of daily conversations. Whether I’m at work, at home or with friends, the current news cycle effortlessly becomes the main topic of conversation. But I have recently noticed that adults aren’t the only one’s talking politics – children are too.
I work at a camp in Omaha, Neb. teaching art to kids from 5 to 12 years old. My day is packed with carefree fun, but every now and then, the conversation turns from glitter and crayons to topics they’ve heard from their parents or on the news. Over the past month, conversations have centered around President Donald Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the Mexican-American border and immigration.
It may come as a surprise to hear that kids – some as young as seven years old – are talking about politics. But for parents, and even older siblings, it’s no surprise that kids absorb the information that surrounds them. In this political era, it’s important to discuss current event topics with kids so they can understand the world around them and have informed opinions.
A couple of campers have asked me about the kids – many of whom are the same age as them – that are in the Customs and Border Protection detention facilities. The kids were confused about why some children were separated from their families and a few even asked if that could happen to them. While my campers knew what was happening, they didn’t know why and that has led them to ask the questions that adults need to answer.
Although it’s not necessary to give kids a full debriefing on domestic and international politics, leaving them in the dark or to their own devices can lead to anxiety or the spread of false information. Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist, states that “parents should talk about politics, but in an age-appropriate way.” By talking about politics with them, they are productively included in conversations that they might not have been able to be a part of before.
To talk constructively with kids of any age, it’s important to stick to the facts and avoid biases. Tell kids what you know, and if needed, research what you don’t. After all the facts are presented, then tell the kids why you think the way you do about a certain subject. By giving facts before your opinion, children have the opportunity to form their own opinions without influence from the adults in their life.
Political conversation for kids isn’t always straightforward. Some of the older campers are not even in middle school yet, but they have made stereotypical jokes about minority groups that seem to be influenced by rhetoric about these groups by political leaders. The jokes cause their peers to laugh, but it isn’t until I confront them that they realize the jokes were wrong, and I learn they are repeating a friend or family member’s words that they have learned are OK.
Kids absorb what they hear and repeat it without much thought. But just like bad jokes, repeating false or misheard information can lead to more than just hurt feelings.
Many kids now have smartphones they use to browse the Internet – which is full of misleading and false information that presents itself as fact. In 2016, a Stanford University study found that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between sponsored content and real news stories. This creates another problem that could arise if parents don’t set the record straight while talking to their children about current events.
On multiple occasions, campers have told their friends about something that they “saw online.” One camper told me that the megalodon shark, which has been extinct for at least 2.6 million years, was still alive and another falsely believed that Mexico won gold in the high jump at the 2016 Olympics, which was the punchline to a joke about why they are so good at jumping the border.
I don’t believe that kids try to spread false information or make insensitive comments. But without an adult to explain what they read or hear on the news, the information will remain unchecked. A 2017 study by the Institute for Culture in Society found that the top two sources of trusted information for children and teens are family members and television. So it’s time those trusted sources step in and help children understand politics if they have questions.
Children should have a basic understanding of the world around them, regardless of if the news is negative or upsetting. Talking about complex topics － like immigration or international relations － with kids isn’t an easy feat, but it’s not impossible either. If they are interested, children deserve to know what is happening in the world.
While I have worked with kids at my camp for several weeks now, one thing that I know is that all of them are eager to learn something new. And it is on adults to educate kids, whether about politics or giant extinct sharks.
Renee Pineda, a senior majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.
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