This presidential election isn’t just turning off adults. It seems America’s youth has become disenchanted by politics too.
The White House was always a popular aspiration for kids, but this year nearly two-thirds of them say they have no interest in being president when they grow up, according to a survey of 2,000 U.S. kids between ages 6 and 12 released Tuesday morning by the children’s educational magazine, Highlights.
The children polled said being president was too difficult, too stressful and too much pressure. One unnamed 9-year-old girl said she wouldn’t want the job because she “would be scared that I would do something wrong if I get elected” and that she “wouldn’t like all of the attention.”
Parents are not shielding their children from the political news — 80 percent of kids said the election is discussed at home. And even if the negativity and anxiety of this presidential campaign is not explicitly or intentionally shared, children absorb information around them. So, if they’re privy to the same vitriol as the rest of the adult public, it’s no wonder a majority of children would want no part of presidential politics.
“Children are picking up on the intensity of this election in particular. Many Americans are unhappy with the candidates and may be focusing on negative aspects of the candidates, which are heard loud and clear by their children,” said Sasha L. Ribic, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist, who reviewed Highlights’ survey results. “We often talk more about what a particular individual is doing wrong, rather than on what they may have contributed. Children might be picking up on how complicated the presidency is, that is, that the president can never appease everyone. That is a lot of pressure!”
To underscore the influence the so-called narrative of this campaign has on children, 44 percent say honesty is the most important quality in a president. Issues of trustworthiness have been tantamount this election, with both major candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, being accused of dishonesty.
But Trump may fare worse with this under-12 demographic because, while Clinton undoubtedly has trust issues, independent fact checkers have assessed both candidates over the course of the campaign and found that Trump lies more often and more brazenly.
Moreover, the second (19 percent) and third (18 percent) most important traits that children look for in a president are kindness and smarts.
Trump, who mocks people and calls them names, is the antithesis of how children are taught to treat one another at that age. Kids are likely hearing, or observing themselves, that Trump is perceived to be a bully. Clinton has a television ad featuring children that says as much.
Christine French Cully, editor in chief of Highlights, said parents could use their kids’ attention to the election as a teaching opportunity to show how to parse the policy from the rhetoric.
“Our children are watching and listening to us. When they hear us talking about a candidate’s trustworthiness, as we have in spades during this election cycle, they pick up on it, and it’s reinforcing what they already tend to believe,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity for parents to endorse virtues such as honesty by reminding kids that while the candidates may seem to forget it, the high road is the best road.”
While at first glance it may be disheartening that children are absorbing the negativity of this election, Vikram Jaswal, the director of the Child Language and Learning Lab at the University of Virginia, saw a silver lining when we shared the results with him.
“I’m so glad to hear that many of those who responded to the survey think that honesty is an important trait for a president to have,” he said. “Some of the classic childhood stories about U.S. presidents involve honesty — Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Lincoln walking several miles to return a customer’s change. Kids absolutely internalize these kinds of stories, and so I’m glad that in the current environment many still find them powerful.”
Earlier this year, we asked a few children to watch the presidential candidates’ debate performances and respond to them. Even back in January, kids were clearly picking up on what they were hearing from parents and at school about the campaign. Watch that video here: Before the votes are cast: The presidential front-runners, as seen through the eyes of children