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How to Explain US Politics to Your Child

by Yasir Asif

Until recently, politics and children seemed to be mutually exclusive. Kids can’t vote, and unless they have a keen interest in current events, learning about political parties and platforms feels like homework (and who wants that?).

However, as kids grow older, they become able to understand how laws can influence their daily lives. This is when they can begin to appreciate the value of democracy and citizenship.

1. Explain the process of elections.

Children naturally pick up on big things happening around them. That’s why they know there’s an election underway, even if parents haven’t discussed it with them.

Explain that officials are popularly elected at the state and local level, with the exception of the president, who is elected through the Electoral College. You might also want to explain that there are two political parties — Democratic and Republican — and that each supports different policies.

Explain how the 538 votes from each state are added together and that a candidate needs 270 or more electoral votes to win the presidency. You might also want to show kids online maps that illustrate the electoral college system, and help them understand how some states have more voters than others.

2. Explain the process of voting.

Voting is a way for citizens to express their opinions and help decide which candidate or option should win. Parents can also bring this idea to life by having their kids vote on small family decisions, such as what movie they want to watch or what to have for dinner. Then, they can count the votes together and announce a winner.

It’s important to note that kids can move from a very basic political understanding to wrapping their heads around nuanced, complex issues at different rates. For this reason, experts recommend starting with general, age-appropriate books about politics and voting.

For example, the PBS series You Choose can introduce kids to the election process and how it works by asking them to pick their favorite candidates for different roles. Then, they can watch a live video of the results to see how voting works at the state level.

3. Explain the process of government.

Children can be captivated by politics at an early age, especially when they see politicians on the television or read about them in the news. By imparting knowledge of how government and voting work, and giving kids the ability to think critically about what they see, parents can help them become engaged citizens.

Talk about how laws start as ideas sponsored by a representative, then go to committees for study and debate. If they’re released, they can be voted on and passed by Congress. Congress is divided into two groups called houses, with 100 senators and 435 representatives. A group called the conference committee works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill. Congress can impeach a president, but only the Senate decides whether he or she is guilty of violating the constitution.

4. Explain the process of law.

Politics and kids may seem like an odd combination. For one thing, kids aren’t old enough to vote, and learning about current issues and party platforms might smack of (gulp) homework.

Children are curious, and they often have an interest in the political process at a young age. This can be sparked by seeing a veteran holding out poppies, or the sight of a pothole that’s being repaired with taxpayer dollars.

Talking to your child about these kinds of issues can help them understand politics at a more abstract level. They can learn about how bills are drafted, and how the president can balance Congress’s power by vetoing laws or appointing judges to the Supreme Court. This information helps them understand that the president isn’t omnipotent, and they can use their voices to create change.

5. Explain the process of activism.

Talking about politics at a young age can help kids understand that their decisions, even as small as choosing not to buy plastic bags, have political implications. They can also learn how to make their voices heard in the form of protests or letter-writing campaigns.

Children of all ages can be fascinated by the idea that a single person can affect change in society, and that’s why teaching them about activism is such an important part of politics education. Explain that activism involves taking direct (and continued) action to work toward social or political change – for example, marches, lobbying, demonstrations, and strikes.

Help your child develop a critical political consciousness by reading and listening to news from multiple sources – including those that may be politically biased or one-sided.

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