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How To Explain Political Ads To Kids During This Crazy Presidential Election

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If the final months of the 2016 presidential election feel anything but ordinary, you’re not alone. The attack ads are out for blood. There’s been more yelling at stump speeches than at a pre-K drop off. And now your kid wants to know why the orange man hates that grandmother.

Dr. Michael Rich, MD, MPH has a lot of cool titles (Associate Professor Of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor Of Social And Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital). But, Founder And Director of the Center On Media And Child Health is the one that makes him an expert on how to talk to kids about our current political climate.

Donald Trump Rally

Be Prepared, Because They’re Going To Bring It Up

“I’m sort of amazed and impressed at how politically alert and savvy kids are with this election,” says Dr. Rich. “We don’t have the option of hiding it from them.” Oh sure, there’s heading to Canada, but the appeal of Tim Horton’s on every block is only novel for so long.

“Kids are inundated all day long,” says Rich, so he says there’s no need for you to start playing “I’m Just A Bill” on repeat to give them a civics lesson. Guide the conversation by asking what they’ve heard about the election and what they think about it. “What we need to do is be able to hear what worries and concerns them, because many of them are as scared as adults are by the potential of this election. They need a safe place to vent that and work that through.” You can then lay on your kid what worries and concerns you. Tell them they can grab a juice box, because you might take a while.

How To Explain Questionable Behavior To Young Kids

Younger kids understand anger and frustration, but not in the same way adults do. “Interestingly, what I’m hearing from kids is, ‘Why is that adult acting like a kid?’” says Rich. “In their mind, this is behavior that they’d be punished for. And so that’s what’s confusing for them. Why are they calling people names? Why are they talking in an angry voice?”

He says to use that negativity as a teaching opportunity. It’s a chance for your kids to demonstrate their own understanding of civility, respect, and empathy. When you ask them how they feel about it, they’ll probably come back with something like, “Well, I wouldn’t like it if someone called me a drug trafficker or a rapist.”

How To Explain Rhetoric To Older Kids

For tweens and teens, sarcasm is like a second language, so they’ll understand a lot of what the candidates are doing with their 140-character low blows. Dr. Rich says there’s a difference between trash-talking to their buddies on Snapchat and doing it from a debate podium, and even middle schoolers need to understand that politicians should be held to a higher standard. Not every insult, expert opinion, and Facebook share is based on fact and, as a parent, it’s your job to help them recognize blatant attempts to sway their point of view.

“This is the age where they learn to be critical thinkers,” says Dr. Rich. “What has grounding in truth, what has grounding in opinion or speculation, and what is outright untrue.” Even if they’re too young to vote for a class president, “they’re not too young to be political beings. To understand where their perspective on the world, their expectations for themselves, and for society are met by what they’re hearing — and where they diverge.” Like, why aren’t any candidates talking about the 4-day school week?

How To Tune Out The Ads

Kids should understand that, like any commercial, political ads are trying to sell them something. This smell test can be taught, but not until around age 7 or 8. Before that, young kids don’t have the brain development to see the difference between the commercial about monster truck toys and the show about monster trucks (which, to be fair, was only created to sell toys). “They can be taught to parrot ‘I know it’s only make-believe’ or whatever, but they don’t really understand it in a deep way,” says Dr. Rich. That’s why there are so many agencies and laws devoted to protecting kids from ads.

You? Not so much. Political ads — like diaper ads that run during the Olympics — are intentionally short and play for the quick-take emotional response, and humans of all ages have to analyze the persuasive intent. He says that because all advertising is trying to manipulate your emotions. And, like buying a ticket to a Pixar movie,  you have the choice to decide if, and how, you want to be emotionally manipulated.

How To Set An Example

Dr. Rich says the way to coax any good behavior from a kid is modeling. The more you model good civic behavior, the better they’re going to be at tuning out all this noise. That means doing your research, and not getting sucked into Facebook comment debates. “One of the things that is not necessarily unique to this election cycle, but seems to be in very high contrast this cycle, is that parents are supporting very viscerally without really thinking about or discerning what is being said,” says Dr. Rich. So make sure you click like if you agree with that sentiment. (You failed.)

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