During the last presidential election I had a child in kindergarten. It didn’t take long into the school year to understand that kids as young as five-years-old are already deeply invested in national politics. At drop off, kids would run up to me eagerly with all kinds of observations and questions typical of kindergarteners, ranging from, “We are having pizza today!” to, “Can you help me tie my shoes?” During the month leading up to the election though, one of the most common questions was, “Who are you voting for??”
If you think that kids are “too young for politics,” think again. A team of researchers looked at the political development of children ages five to eleven after the last presidential election and found that my experience of five-year-olds was not unique. It turns out that children do follow presidential elections closely. Nearly all the kids knew information about who was running and expressed preferences for specific candidates. The study found that children’s preferences were shaped by the political views of both their parents and larger community. Their interest in the election more broadly, however, was not correlated with their parents expressed interest. This indicates that kids’ interest in politics is shaped by more than just parental modeling. There are larger cultural forces at work as well. Before we celebrate our kids’ political awareness though, the study also found that there were significant “gaps” in civic knowledge. For example, the researchers found that children were largely unaware that women are underrepresented in our elected political bodies.
We are deep into election season once again. Kindergarteners and teens alike have lots of questions, fears, and uncertainty as the election approaches. It is worth noting that, for many kids, their interest in electoral politics is not an abstract civics lesson. Issues like COVID-19, racism, immigration, and healthcare have real and concrete impact on their lives. Without an ability to vote, kids count on us to look out for their best interests and pass policies that provide for and benefit all children. In the coming weeks, we have an opportunity to lead by example – showing our kids that while we work to make the world a better place in a lot of different ways, casting a ballot in democratic elections is among the most important. Talking with our children about movements for voting rights and voter suppression and engaging them in conversations about the political process teaches them to be change-makers and to better understand the way that democracy is supposed to work.
The reality is that our kids are already absorbing profound civics lessons as they watch the news, observe interactions, and overhear snippets of conversations. Let’s make sure we are talking within our families as much as we are posting on social media and debriefing with our friends. Our kids benefit from having meaningful conversations about the issues we care about and the ways we work to solve collective challenges through democratic processes.
We should also engage kids in developmentally appropriate ways about the significant and dangerous gaps between our democratic ideals and civic realities and explore the historic and current movements working to close these gaps. The more that we can help them gain an accurate understanding of voting, democracy, and political leadership, the more likely they are to engage in the process in meaningful ways later on at the ballot box and beyond. If you feel uncertain about how to use this election to engage your kids in conversation, check out these resources to get started: