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Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 10/16/2012

Talking politics, not trash, to kids


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama talk after the first presidential debate in Denver. (Charlie Neibergall - AP)
The presidential debate this evening, you may have heard, is expected to be more pugnacious than the first go-around. If the political sages’ predications are to be believed, and if the vice-presidential debate was a precedent, it’s likely that many of us will be talking about the jabs over the breakfast table tomorrow.

And there will be ears, some smaller than ours, registering our every word.

Educators say the political season is a wonderful teaching moment. Parents can use the campaign news to explain broad concepts such as democracy and leadership to children of any age.

There is a downside, though, especially as this race heads into the final weeks and the competition becomes more fierce.

We may find ourselves speaking more bluntly about our political leanings, disparaging the other candidate more openly. All those calm and cool conversations about American democracy might quickly curdle as kids instead equate the presidential race with the trash talk of sports competitions.

At the same time, political rhetoric is intensifying everywhere, including in many kids’ usual haunts. My older daughter’s playground this season sometimes takes on the cast of a Spin Room. (This is Washington, after all.)

Kids have a tendency to assume their parents’ allegiances and may too readily jump into those conversations and trample over other people’s political sensitivities. Just because we live in Washington doesn’t mean it’s okay for my daughter to tell her friend’s father that the candidate she supports is a liar.

For some thoughts on the subject, I turned to Emily Yoffe, who writes Slate’s Dear Prudence column.

Her take, below, might be useful reading for any parent who plans to watch tonight’s debate or is finding their discourse increasingly difficult to rein in.

Yoffe said the key is to control the rhetoric at home while still explaining that the child or teen might hear trash talk elsewhere:

“In discussing politics with your kids, you can make explicit your dislike of the disparagement and name-calling that sometimes goes along with campaigns.

“You can say it’s admirable that people feel passionately about their candidate. But as citizens, it’s always a good exercise to try to understand the other side’s arguments and point of view. Political debates are fun, but not if they consist of calling the other person an idiot.”

For older children, she said, “If your child is interested in a candidate, he or she should be able to speak about a couple of issues that they agree with the candidate on.

“You can tell them that they surely know that when someone insults something they believe, or someone they admire, that doesn’t make them change their mind, it just makes them think less of the other person. Debating the issues is great, but it should be done with civility. If you stay polite you have a better chance of making good points for your side and possibly changing minds.

“If other kids are simply being disparaging, you can always walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to trade insults.’ They will see just how poorly that works at making the case.”

Finally, Yoffee said, there’s a phrase that parents would do well to teach to a child “that will come in handy throughout life: ‘We’ll just have to agree to disagree.’ ”

Have you been talking with your child about the campaigns and your allegiances? Do you talk to them about discussing politics in public?

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By  |  12:45 PM ET, 10/16/2012

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