Understanding the political process is the first step to talking to kids about the upcoming presidential election. Come November 8, pundits will spend hours explaining the mechanics. Like the Olympics, it happens only once every four years, and, by then, most of us can use a refresher.

Discussing the actual politics is trickier; the issues are many and can be emotional. Nonetheless, the upcoming election is a golden opportunity to show kids democracy in action and teach them skills they can use for a lifetime.

Explaining the process

America relies on its citizens to elect leaders. When people vote in the presidential election, they are voting for a team: a presidential candidate and his or her running mate, a vice-presidential candidate.

In the 2012 presidential election, some 3 million people cast ballots in Wisconsin. The number of votes a candidate receives is called the popular vote. However, the presidency is determined by who receives the majority of electoral votes.

Wisconsin will cast 10 electoral votes, which equals the number of representatives we have in the U.S. Congress (2 senators and 8 congressmen/women). Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, can split their electoral votes between candidates; otherwise it is winner takes all.

The ticket that receives 270 electoral votes, the majority of the nation’s 538 electoral votes, becomes president. The candidate who wins the popular vote usually receives the majority of the electoral vote, too, but there’s no guarantee—just ask Al Gore.

“(I) hope that students see that the process, despite its imperfections and frustrations at times, works and their participation…is essential,” says Brad Ducklow, a social studies teacher at Oconomowoc High School who teaches government, politics and citizenship.

“Who are you voting for?”

Hype about the upcoming election is almost unavoidable. Between television ads, yard signs, social media and current events at school, kids are talking about it—and they have questions.

Are there only two people running for president? Are there more Democrats or Republicans in the United States? Who’s winning? Who are you voting for?

Talking about political issues with kids is a lot like talking about sex; it’s not easy. As a rule, answers should be age-appropriate. Also, parents should listen to what kids are asking for: facts or their opinion?

Remember, kids are always listening, and whatever is said at home may be repeated on the school bus or playground, and some of the message may be lost in translation.

It’s not their fault. Kids just don’t know the history or realize the nuances of many issues, and they are blissfully unaware of the strong feelings political discussions can elicit.

“Many school-aged kids don’t understand the complexity of what we’re voting for. They only know the personalities of the presidential candidates because they’re out there in the media,” says Dr. Bill Seymour, a psychologist with Integrated Development Services.

By providing context for soundbites, helping evaluate the trustworthiness of sources, and teaching kids to separate fact from opinion, parents can foster some important life skills.

Establishing home as a place where kids can talk freely and express their opinions without fear of judgment is another key. Focusing on what ideas parents do support, not those they condemn, also can keep conversations positive.

Of course, one candidate will win, and one will lose, and that can be difficult to accept.

“Helping children understand that there are a lot of people in our country who have different opinions and experiences than they have, and that we still will stay a strong country no matter who turns out to be president…might soften this blow,” says Sarah Howells, a guidance counselor in the Oconomowoc Area School District.

Seymour also suggests keeping this election in perspective. “Based on the rhetoric they’re hearing, particularly this year, kids might have a sense that there are dire outcomes as a result of a presidential election. But, in the end, the president is not a king or queen; the president is one part of a larger federal system with checks and balances,” he says.

Laura Baird is a freelance writer and mom to three in Oconomowoc. 

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