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Parenting Amid Transition

Talking with kids about the election and what's next — and helping them find their voice

December 8, 2016
watercolor illustration of US flag, with paint blurring into paper

Four weeks post-election, many parents are still feeling bewildered about how to make sense of it for their kids. How do we manage our own feelings of dismay — or fears about the vitriolic campaign and the great chasms in our country — so we can model tolerance, a sense of hope, or a renewed spirit of activism?

In a wide-ranging conversation recorded for the Harvard EdCast, we asked psychologists and parenting experts Nancy Hill and Richard Weissbourd to share advice for parents on how to navigate this current moment of transition, where many long-held assumptions about our government and our society are being challenged. Listen to their conversation, and read an excerpt of their audio "tip sheet” below.

"What I’m hearing from a lot of parents is that they want to get engaged,” says Weissbourd. "They feel like they were blindsided by this — that there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t think the way they do, and that they want to engage those people, and want their kids to engage those people. They want to have conversations across the usual divides. I’m also hearing from some really responsible parents, in my point of view, who really want to be allies to people who are threatened, to Muslim families, to immigrant families, to people of color.” Those are both important concepts to model, Weissbourd notes.

Takeaways for parents on talking to children about the election:

  • Tune into what children are experiencing. There are big differences in what children and parents experience across race, class, and culture, Weissbourd notes, and across developmental stages. Be aware of “what our kids are experiencing emotionally, and also what they’re capable of, cognitively and ethically."
  • Young children are absorbing more than we think. "We’re not always clear how much children hear, and how they make sense of it, and what their feelings are. When they see their parents really upset, it really undoes their sense of security,” says Hill.
  • Work on modulating your emotions so you can reassure your children.
  • But don’t pretend you don’t have emotions. "There is such a thing as righteous anger, so how do you model that?” Hill asks. It’s not about pretending “that parents don’t have right feelings that should be communicated with their children or their adolescents.” Think about how to model that productively.
  • Be child-guided. Sit down, listen, and offer non-guiding questions to see what’s on their minds.
  • Monitor what your children are hearing from media sources.
  • Work to understand and engage people’s complexities. Talk to kids about the different motivations of voters and the weight they give to different issues, depending on their own life circumstances.
  • Move beyond passivity. "Kids and parents need to move to activity, Weissbourd says, "to doing things that help them better the world, and also help them manage their own anxieties.” Register people to vote. Get involved in a service project, working alongside other people on common problems. Stand up against sexual harassment or other forms of harassment. Write your congressperson.
  • Remember the fundamental beliefs that we hold true as people and as Americans, Hill says. "Be willing to talk about those beliefs, to label them, to point them out, and exercise them, in ways we probably haven’t had to do in a good number of years."

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