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What Should We Tell Our Kids? Be Tomorrow's Leaders, Today

Common Sense Media logo Common Sense Media 11/9/2016 Common Sense

In the wake of this divisive election, its often ugly and frightening rhetoric, and its widely unexpected result, parents and teachers are struggling with what to say to students and kids. Regardless of your political beliefs, the current state of discourse in our nation, both online and off, is troubling. This is a challenge all Americans face. There are so many reactions -- and it's parents' job to help kids make sense of it all.

As parents, teachers, and advocates for kids, we are empowered to take positive action. We can be the antidote to a divisive and ugly media environment by raising a generation of kids who value character, by being a positive role model, and by standing up for others when we see an injustice.

So, how do we support kids through this stunning election and the transition that follows?

First: Tell them they will be OK. Talk to your kids and students and offer them reassurance. Let them know that our country has gone through many divisive and challenging moments. We have a strong democratic system that is designed to withstand changes in power and protect the rights of all people.

Second: Show them how to channel emotion into action. This has been a dramatic and polarizing election process, and children likely have heard all manner of rumors about what the results mean for them and their friends. That kind of energy can be scary. Help children and students find a cause that matters to them, to get out and get to know their communities, and to direct that energy into positive action. Get involved and help shape your own future.

We may have differences of opinion. But it's imperative that we teach kids how to have differences of opinion, how to disagree but still work together, and how to stand together as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As one of the nation's leading voices on child advocacy issues, including education, media literacy, cyberbullying, and digital citizenship, we can't ignore the negative discourse and division that has spread throughout this election. This includes President-elect Trump's history of engaging in negative behavior, online and off. And it includes the behavior and speech of many politicians, citizens on all sides of the political spectrum, children and adults, online and off.

We should insist that all of our elected leaders rise to a level of discourse appropriate to their office. As parents, as teachers, as students, as citizens of the United States, we also have a duty and responsibility ourselves to rise above discourse that demeans, bullies, or spreads hate.

What we know today, what was true last month and will be next year, is that in our homes and classrooms, we are shaping tomorrow's leaders. And each of us has a role to play in that work.

Common Sense Tips for Talking to Kids

Kids of all ages will be going through a range of emotions, and it's important to acknowledge how kids are feeling. They likely will have heard many opinions from the media, at home, or in school. Consider your own reactions since kids will take your lead. It's OK to show kids that you're sad or excited, but try to stay calm and rational.

For kids age 3–6:

Assure kids that they are safe. However your family or school community feels about the election results, kids are sure to notice the stress of parents and teachers around them. Smile, hug, and spend time with them.

Keep the news off and out of sight. Kids younger than about 7 can't understand the larger implications of national news. The rhetoric and some of the images can be more upsetting than informative.

Be together. However you feel about the election results, being together as a family, classroom, or community feels good and is exactly what little kids need during stressful events.

Use age-appropriate language. Try, "Sometimes grown-ups are so silly. They don't always agree with each other, but they can still be friends. Let's read some books about being friends!"

Take action. Draw a picture of one of the candidates. Write a letter to an elected official. Read books about brave leaders and other role models.

For kids age 7–12:

Acknowledge their feelings. They might be anxious or fearful. They could be excited or relieved. However they feel -- even if it's different from how you're feeling -- it's important that they feel comfortable expressing it. Offer appropriate outlets for expression, from exercise to art.

Help them with conflict. Kids may have friends or family members who are reacting differently to the election. Help them figure out how to express disagreement respectfully and while avoiding name-calling, disrespectful language, and prejudice.

Teach media literacy. Find age-appropriate news sources. Discuss how mainstream media has covered the election and the aftermath. You might explain how news organizations fight for viewers and the business reasons behind it. Help kids distinguish fact from fiction.

Focus on the positive. If kids aren't happy with the presidential election result, turn their attention to some of the state and local results they might feel better about.

Use age-appropriate language. Try, "Wow, that was a crazy election! I'm feeling [disappointed/excited/shocked/surprised]. I'm so happy that we have a [family/classroom/school/community] that is supportive and that treats people fairly and kindly. Let's think of what we can do to keep it that way!"

Take action. However they feel about the election, use the momentum of the campaigns to inspire them to get involved in their communities. Find places to volunteer as a family or causes to unite around.

For teens 13 and up:

Check in. Many teens will have absorbed the news independently from you, so talking to them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. Take the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don't dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Let teens express themselves. Many teens will feel passionately about the election and may feel the result very personally. They'll also probably be aware that their own lives could be affected by what comes next. Try to address their concerns and ideas without minimizing them.

Encourage breaks from media. It's hard for social media users to step away in the midst of major news events -- especially when there's a lot of emotion being expressed. But it's an important part of taking care of ourselves to step back, connect with each other face-to-face, and even relieve some of the pressure with nonpolitical media -- funny movies, books, games, and so on. (And don't forget to do this yourself!)

Teach kids to be upstanders. Help them understand the responsibility to speak up when they see something that isn't right. The tone of the election was incredibly negative, and between the candidates and their supporters, we saw bullying, name-calling, and lots of ugly language. Encourage them to rise above the negativity and be positive, kind, and respectful.

Use age-appropriate language. Try, "OK, now that the election's over, what can we do to make the world a better place? Let's make a plan for our [family/classroom/community] to take action."

Take action. Help teens pursue causes they're passionate about. Support them by helping with transportation and resources and talking through any issues that arise. Also, when they're old enough, help them register to vote.

Resources for kids of all ages:

  • Media That Strengthens Character
  • Anti-Cyberbullying Resources for Parents
  • Books That Teach Empathy
  • Digital Citizenship Curriculum for Teachers
  • Websites That Help Kids Do Good and Take Community Action
  • Books About Racism and Social Justice
  • Movies That Inspire Kids to Change the World
  • How to Become a Common Sense Advocate for Kids and Families
  • Resources for Latino Families
  • We All Teach SEL: Inspiring Activities for Every Classroom

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