Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.During an election cycle that's as heated as this one, it's nearly impossible for kids to avoid hearing about politics in some way or another. Political ads. Signs on a neighbor's lawn. Current events class. The news in general. How do you talk to your kids about what it all means, without spoon-feeding them your own opinions?
Start by explaining how the political process works. Stick to the basics: The United States is a federal constitutional republic, where power is shared by the President, Congress, and the judiciary. Though other political parties exist, either the Democrats and the Republicans have held the White House since the American Civil War. Talk about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. Break out those old "School House Rock" videos if you have to -- they do a pretty good job.
- Explain commonly used political terms. It's difficult to explain what the pundits are saying if you can't explain what a pundit actually is. Scholastic offers a great list of political terms for teachers that work equally well at home.
- Discuss the news in an age-appropriate way. When it comes to hot-button issues, the depth of your conversation depends on the age of your kids. While an 11-year-old may be able to think logically about the news and understand cause and effect, they're usually not able to see the big picture clearly; Scholastic News's Kids Press Corps offers a great take on the news, written for middle-school age kids, by middle-school age kids. Younger children may be curious about the issues but are able to process only general ideas about money, healthcare, jobs and other "grown-up things." Pre-schoolers often assume that what they see on TV is happening, nearby, in real time, and that reenactments are new events, so it's a safe bet that they'd be more interested how you vote than what you're voting about.
- Explain big issues in terms of how they affect your family. Healthcare reform in general may not mean much to your 14-year-old, but the idea that he or she won't be turned down for coverage because of pre-existing conditions might. The deficit may be too big to fathom, but knocking off several zeros and talking about the national budget in terms of your own household budget can make major money issues easier to understand. Taxes and government spending issues are complicated; recasting it in terms of their allowances, chores, and household bills might make it easier to understand.
- Discuss the basic platforms of both parties in a neutral way. Why bother to stay neutral? You're also giving your children -- especially if they're teenagers -- an opportunity to learn how to discuss issues calmly, politely, and rationally, to form their own opinions, and to respect those of other people (like their teachers, or their friends' parents), even if they disagree with them.
- Make your family's values clear. Just because you're trying to discuss the Democratic or Republican party platform in a neutral way doesn't mean that you have to ignore your family's values. This is a great time to have a frank discussion about how you, personally, feel about certain issues -- just be sure to do it in an age-appropriate way, and be prepared to answer questions from your kids.
- Take your kids with you when you vote. If you choose not to vote, then you're choosing to let someone else decide who wins the election. Underscore the importance of doing your civic duty by bringing your smaller children with you into the voting booth, if possible.