Do we really need to talk to young kids about things like Donald Trump’s election victory?
by John Hoffman
I can’t believe how many articles I’ve seen over the past week about how to talk to your kids about Donald Trump being elected. Being the contrarian I sometimes am, my first impulse is to not write about that topic simply because everyone else is doing it. However, here I am writing about that very thing.
Why? Because I think a couple of assumptions need to be questioned. The first one is that it is necessary to talk to young children about things like the Trump election or other disturbing world events.
I disagree. If your child is old enough to understand things like elections and seems to be concerned or interested, then yes, maybe it is a good idea to have a chat about Donald Trump’s election and what you think about it. This would not be the case with most young children.
I read one article in which a mother talked about trying to deconstruct the Trump victory with her four-year-old. Hello? A four–year-old? Please! There is no need to discuss politics, especially divisive, alarming politics, with kids that young. Sure, we want our children to learn about democracy and the political process. Kids will have lots of time to learn about politics when they are older.We don’t need to lay our worries about political events on little kids.
The biggest risk that I see, is that in initiating discussions about politics or disasters with kids, we transfer our own anxiety to them. It’s like, “Oh, Dad sure seems to be worried about this Mr. Trump dude. Maybe I should be worried too?”
I’m not saying that kids go through that exact thought process. But, it is possible to transfer our anxiety, angst and anger to our kids. It’s not just what we say to them that matters. Even more important is the level of alarm they pick up from us through our tone of voice, facial expression and body language. The human brain is designed to constantly monitor the environment for threats. It does this automatically without our direct control. So, if Dad or Mom starts talking about Donald Trump and seems to be really upset about it, a young child is not able to process the words fully. But her brain’s alarm system will detect a threat. That makes the child’s stress response system kick into gear. Not good. Sure, the stress response system should kick in sometimes. But not because Dad is upset about who won the U.S. election.
So I absolutely wouldn’t initiate a conversation with a child under 12 about the Trump election victory…unless… my child seemed to need it.
I think kids should “decide” whether or not we talk about difficult stuff that happens in the world. So if a child asks a question we need to answer it. But children can also “tell” us through their behaviour or other subtle clues. Even if my child did seem to be anxious or fearful, I’d proceed cautiously. I’d try to keep the conversation short and to the point, based on what the child seemed to need to know. Usually, young kids just need simple answers, not in-depth analysis. And what they need to know mostly in situations like this is that they are safe and that we will keep them safe. Kids have their own ways of working these things out. Playing is an important one. Play helps children tune out the big bad world out there and stay focused on just being a kid.
Over the past 40 years or so we’ve developed this belief that talk is the answer to every problem. Have a problem? Gotta talk about it. Talk can be very helpful. But it’s over-rated, as a solution to young children’s problems. Often it’s better to just focus on helping kids calm down and feel safe and secure.
So what would I do with regard to my kids about the Trump election, if I had young ones (which I don’t anymore)? Number one: I would focus on reducing their exposure to all the alarm about the election. I’d talk about it as little as possible in their presence. I’d keep the news channels turned off. I’d avoid saying nasty things about Donald Trump or the people that voted for him.
If children did ask questions I would provide simple, non-emotional, factual answers and then I’d go and do something fun with them.
But I would not assume that starting a conversation about concerns and alarm about the election is a good idea. On the contrary, I would assume that it could cause alarm and anxiety where there wasn’t any before.
The key is, it should not be our need to reassure a child that determines what happens. It should be what the child seems to need. And let’s remember what children need most of all. They need to feel safe, loved and connected. That will help them weather many storms.