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It's time to sit your kids down and have THE talk. Not the one about the birds and the bees -- the one about the donkeys and the elephants.
With campaign rhetoric heating up as time winds down before the Nov. 6 elections, some adults have been so put off by the vitriol and anger that pass for political discourse that they have turned off their social media's political comments. But what about the kids? You can't turn off their eyes and ears, which means they pick up on the angst swirling around them.
"With their connection to the media -- computers, TV, texting -- kids are much more aware of what's going on" than previous generations, said Juliana James, a social studies teacher at St. Anthony Park Elementary School in St. Paul who's been teaching for 29 years. When the U.S. embassy in Libya was stormed recently, "I had fourth-graders asking me about the ambassador who was killed. They knew about it. Young people are very media-savvy."
That's good news, educators and parenting experts said. Instead of trying to shelter your kids from the media maelstrom -- something that's pretty much impossible, anyway -- they suggest using the kids' expertise as a teaching tool.
"Kids know what an infomercial is," James said. "They know when they are being persuaded or influenced, and you can talk about that with them. If a political ad makes them feel alarmed or frightened, ask them: What did the ad do to make you feel that way? Kids have the media literacy to dissect and analyze these things."
Twin Cities parenting coach Lori Jo Kemper said that the political discussion should start with an emphasis on the importance of the system.
"Remind them that the reason this is a tremendous country is that we have these wonderful free and open elections," said the founder and president of the Parenting Path. "Share with them that the election process is important. Tell them why we do this, then you can talk about how we do it."
Rachel Smith is the mother of a 5-year-old daughter. She's also Hennepin County's elections manager, which means it's her job to oversee the entire election process, from candidate filings to voter registration to the compilation of the votes. She's making sure that her daughter appreciates the opportunity elections offer.
"I talk to her a lot about how you have a choice and you have a ballot to make that choice," Smith said.
Most youngsters reflect their parents' political views -- at least, until their rebellious teenage years -- and that's fitting. "It's important that your kids know where you are coming from," Kemper said. "Let your kids know what you think."
James agreed. "Families should discuss who's running and what they believe in," she said. "It's a great time to talk about real-life problems."
Children also reflect their parents' attitudes, and that's where you need to be careful.
"You want to model good citizenship skills," James said. "You want to model an intelligent way of dealing with politics."
A big part of that is avoiding mudslinging, they said. Talk to your kids about the positive things you like about the candidates you support instead of bad-mouthing their opponents. It will make things easier on your kids when they discover that their friends' families might be supporting the opponents.
"The most important thing you can teach your kids is to respect other people's opinions," James said.
That's fine on your end, but what happens when your kids come home all upset because their friends were belittling them for what they think?
"A great time to talk about that is at the dinner table," Kemper said. "Ask the kids, 'What did you hear today? What do you think about what he or she said? And why do you think he said it?'"
Keeping a calm demeanor is critical, the experts said. As the election nears, the provocative rhetoric increases, making it likely that sooner or later kids are going to overhear a political commentator predicting disaster if so-and-so doesn't win. That can be scary stuff for a youngster, and having their parents get upset is only going to make things worse.
"Some of these commentators are pretty inflammatory," James said. "If you take the time to sit down and talk to your children, they will calm down. Have them tell you specifically what they are worried about, and then comfort them."
This is also a good time to remind the kids that the politicians are trying to sell people on their ideas, not unlike all the other ads.
"The best thing to do is educate the kids about the ads," she said. "Ask them: 'What is the essence of the message?' Kids are pretty good at dissecting and analyzing media. They've been around it their whole lives. They're pretty good at discerning what is propaganda and what is truth."
Smith recommended involving the kids as much as possible.
"Get a sample ballot ahead of time and go through it with them," she said. "And don't be afraid to take your children with you to the polling place. Explain what you are doing. Walk them through the process."
The ultimate goal is for children to become voters, Smith said.
"You want them to grow up to be participatory citizens," she said. "That's the really important thing."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392