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How to Teach Kids Thoughtful Citizenship in the Midst of Mudslinging

How to teach thoughtful citizenship in the midst of mudslinging

There is no escaping it.

Election campaigns have taken hold of every media source your family is likely to use. Uninformative, often scary ads pop up at the most inappropriate times.

They’ve made me abandon television news programs. As much as I want to stay well-informed, I’d rather not have ominous advertising music or screaming sound bites as the soundtrack to our evenings.

And these ads interrupt my family's dance parties - usually a riot of stress-reducing and giggle-inducing movement. Now our favorite Pandora station has been flooded with exceptionally terrible advertisements, featuring ominous music, angry voices, and frequent repetitions of words like terrorism and lies.

Don't fight, we tell the kids. Speak respectfully and play fair.

Yet the very people vying to lead our nation can’t seem to follow these elementary instructions. Our lessons are drowned out by their mudslinging.

And I’ll be honest.

I’m not a neutral observer of my country and its politics. I’ve been known to talk back to news reports, baring my outrage with a vitriol I don’t want my children to emulate.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to this crazy onslaught of ads, outrageous sound bites, and scandalous witch hunts.

It's fairly simple.

We must approach this hyper-political climate as a learning opportunity (click to tweet).

We must point out shameful examples of unacceptable public behavior.

Stratigies (and inspiration) to teach kids thoughtful citizeship.

We must wrestle with tough questions together, with and in front of our children. 

How can people – candidates or citizens – make themselves heard without acting hatefully?

How do two divided people – or two divided parties – find common ground?

How can we empathize with people while disagreeing with them?

Where do we stand on important issues?

Follow these strategies to turn political season into an opportunity for learning.

1. Model civil behavior.

It’s critical that we model honorable discussion habits, whether we’re talking with a candidate at a community event or simply debating the merits of a news story at the dinner table. It’s possible to disagree fervently, even persuasively, without playing dirty.

Even if our kids aren't participating in the conversation, they are listening to the way we speak and the tone we take. If we resort to angry name calling as our preferred political discourse, we'll simply reinforce the terrible messages those nasty campaigns are sending.

Strive to elevate the conversation, by remaining calm and thoughtful, admitting the limits of what you know, and staying away from mudslinging yourself.

2. Empathize with the candidates.

Whatever their political persuasion, and in spite of the ads you've seen, each candidate truly believes they aim to improve our country.

So, get to know them. Attempt to understand each candidate’s take on the issues. Strive to make sense of what his or her supporters are drawn to. Gather all of the political fliers piling up on your doorstep and in your mailbox. Sit down as a family and do your election research together.
Just a few minutes on sites like VoteEasy make will help you understand the position of each national candidate.

3. Meet the candidates.

Local candidates will be out pounding the pavement this summer. Take a moment to talk to them when they stop by your home or the latest community event. Invite your children to ask questions and raise their own concerns.

4. Be curious and do your research.

Watch for opportunities to learn with your child. If you find a topic that stumps you – whether it’s a question about the history of our democracy, the merits of a controversial policy, or an outrageous statement by a candidate – take a moment to do a little research.

Visit sites like FactCheck.org, which aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in American politics. You and your child will become more informed together.

5. Practice civic engagement.

Start a letter writing campaign, sign petitions, or raise awareness for a cause you care about. Try one of these Advocacy Projects, from Doing Good Together™. Complete with conversation starters, great resource links, and tips to get started, these projects will teach kids how to join a movement and make change.

6. Take a literary approach.

If current events are too disheartening, dive into fiction with your child. This growing list of picture books and chapter books to teach citizenship will give you and your family plenty to talk about when you feel inclined to hunker down and avoid the mudslinging altogether.

Nelson Mandela.

As the angry rhetoric flies through the airwaves, it’s tempting to take an old-fashioned duck-and-cover approach.

But what lessons will we teach – unintentionally – by washing our hands of the whole horrible mess?

We can help shape the citizens our children will become by holding up the worst of this political season as the disgrace that it is. And even more so, by offering a thoughtful counterpoint to the disastrous examples our kids are getting from the headlines.