Mindful Dialogue: Politics and Kids
In recent weeks, I have had some difficult conversations with my two sons, who are eight and five years old. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had secretly hoped that a social studies teacher, or a clever Disney movie with an underlying message on immigration and women’s’ rights would get to them before I ever needed to. In my fantasy, I could simply follow up with some nice words and inspirational quotes and tie it all up in a neat little package. Done! Isn’t mom the wisest person around?
Unfortunately, life and parenting just doesn’t work that way.
Today, information is reaching our kids faster than we can, perhaps even more than they as kids, or we are parents, consciously realize. Children are absorbing current events from the internet, social media, television, radio, friends, teachers, chatter at the park, and conversations “in code” with our spouses. Furthermore, they are picking up on our moods, demeanor and even energetic changes in the world around them.
So where do we begin? How do we open a dialogue with our children about abortion, women rights, immigration, refugees, and national security without stripping away their innocence, introducing bias, or asking them to pick sides?
We as parents might feel unprepared ourselves to deal with such issues, much less discuss them with our children. We are trying to filter, position, and even dilute some of the controversial news around us, without saying too much or too little.
Perhaps one gift of this election is an opportunity to practice mindful dialogue with our children. Here are some ideas that have helped me in starting such conversations with my own little ones, and hopefully might help you too:
1. You Know Them Best: You know your children better than anyone else, including me, the experts out there, and other friends and family. Consider your child’s age, developmental level, temperament, and ability to handle difficult topics and emotions. Think about what a safe space and time for challenging conversations might look like in your particular family. Make sure your spouse or partner is on board. Begin by eliciting what your child already knows, and what questions they might already have, and use that as a starting point for conversation
2. Model Calm: Children are highly attuned to the emotions that their parents experience, especially fear, sadness, anxiety, and anger. As parents, we know that there are many unprecedented changes occurring in this history defining time. Yet we owe it to our children to find the balance of not over-reacting emotionally, nor under-reacting intellectually. Do your best to be honest with your children about how you feel, while maintaining a safe and calming demeanor.
3. Educate. Share the issues that you feel your children are ready to hear and absorb. Use age-appropriate language and neutral words. Do your best to not create a sense of fear or alarm, but let them know you are always here to help them understand what is going on in the world, and will always do your best to inform and protect them. Share that it is important for us to do our best to stay informed as part of being citizens of the country and the world. Help them understand and filter the available information, including discerning reliable sources.
4. Lean into Your Values. We have been instilling and modeling values in our kids from the day they were born. We have done our best to model kindness, compassion, empathy, honesty and gratitude. We have also tried to teach assertiveness, appropriate ways to share and ask questions, and how to be respectful to others, including those with whom we disagree. When talking with your kids, give them permission to use the lens of their values and moral sense of right and wrong, and help them do so. Many of the political issues we are facing today are beyond bipartisan. They are human issues. Let’s discuss them in a human way with our children.
5. Model Non-Judgment: Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and we may disagree with many of the people we know, and don’t know. Given yourself permission to feel passionate about your own beliefs, without judging or belittling those who espouse different views. We can share with our children that non-judgment is a trait we practice throughout our lives. Remind them that our words have the power to heal or harm, whether used face-to-face, or via technology or social media.
6. Give Space and Reassurance. Children and adolescents might be worried about their safety whenever big changes occur in their lives. One of the most important things we can do is maintain a sense of safety and routine within our homes. Provide space to voice their concerns and questions, and reassure them frequently that you will do your best as a parent to protect them. As children, they have not yet experienced repeated political election cycles and cannot draw upon prior experience of such transitions of power. To adults, uncertainty and change are familiar, and we have had some practice managing the associated anxiety. Uncertainty is a new and difficult feeling for our children, and therefore may need a little extra love and support.
Above all, difficult times and difficult conversations become an opportunity for sharing compassion with our children. Consider practicing a simple compassion exercise with your child as something to “do” when feeling helpless, or overwhelmed.
Sitting on the floor with your child, open your arms out to the side and breathe in deeply. Breathe in peace. Bring your hands back to your heart, breathing out love to everyone in the world. Do this several times. Breathe in peace all the way to the toes, and breathe out love to every child and adult in the world.
Difficult conversations and practices, however challenging, are perfect chances to teach our children, and ourselves perhaps the most important lesson of all. No matter what is going on in the world around us, we all have the ability to pause and connect to a deep sense of our own internal compassion. It is from this peaceful place that we can then manifest the change we wish to see in the world.