How to Talk to your Kids about Politics, with Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers
In honor of Super Tuesday, Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers (co-hosts of Pantsuit Politics) dive into talking to your kids about everyone’s favorite topic: politics! They have a really thoughtful conversation about tips, strategies, and challenges they’ve faced when having these conversations with their own kids. But, most importantly, they stress how critical it is to have these conversations even when it’s hard.
Listen to Pantsuit Politics and check out their book, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations.
[01:06] Sarah Stewart Holland: Hi, I’m Sarah Stewart Holland.
[01:09] Beth Silvers: And I’m Beth Silvers. And this is Good Kids.
[01:17] Sarah Stewart Holland: We talk politics for a living. And the question we most often get when we’re out on the road is how do I talk politics with my kids? The world is scary and we’re all full of anxiety about the future. And we feel incredibly vulnerable when our children ask us about the problems we’re facing, political or otherwise, because as parents our most desperate wish is to assure them that everything is gonna be OK. But we know we really can’t do that when it comes to climate change or gun violence or economic inequality.
[01:47] Beth Silvers: The two of us have somewhat similar and somewhat different approaches to talking to our kids. I think the thing we have most in common, Sarah, is that both of us want our houses to be places where all issues are on the table. You can come to me with any question. I tell my kids all the time, “your friends are dumb. Don’t talk to them. Come talk to me. I will tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
[02:17] Sarah Stewart Holland: I felt as a child a little shut down with certain family members when I wanted to talk about adult topics like politics. The family members who welcomed my questions, who invited me into the conversation, who would talk politics with my little seven-year-old self, are still beloved, still hold special places in my heart, because they treated me as if my opinions mattered, that my questions were important. And that is the most important thing that I want my children to get from our conversations about politics and the news, which is you are welcome in this conversation and your ideas and your perspective and your questions are really important to me.
[03:01] Beth Silvers: Well, because ultimately — and this is something we talk about all the time — politics is not this separate container. It is part of life. It is how we live in community with other people. It’s a way that we express our values. So we shouldn’t treat that differently than any other complex thing that we would talk to our kids about. And I really believe that my daughters will remember more about how I answered their questions than what I actually said in response on any specific issue. So just making them feel comfortable, welcome, needed in the conversation I think is the most important work I can do as a parent.
[03:39] Sarah Stewart Holland: Now, where we differ is I am not opposed to indoctrinating my children. I feel like politics is just a reflection of our values. And so I will very unabashedly share my opinions, political perspectives with my children. I’m not trying to stay neutral. I want to hear how they think. And I definitely ask them, well, what do you think about this? But I do not shy away from sort of sharing, in very passionate terms, how I feel about certain political issues.
[04:09] Beth Silvers: And I am really committed to making sure that my kids have room for their own opinions if they differ from mine. And so I will share my opinion, but I like for them to ask it. You know, my 8-year-old daughter is really good about posing interesting questions. And then we’ll talk about sort of the spectrum of beliefs people have about those topics. And then if she says, what do you think, mom? I’ll tell her. But usually I say, what do you think first? I just want her to find her own voice. I don’t know that I had a lot of encouragement to come up with my own decisions about political topics from adults in my life. We didn’t talk about this stuff a whole lot in my house. We talked about the news, but not about politics. But at school, I feel like I was always sort of presented with here are the options, and there are just two of them, and they are quite narrow. Which do you choose? And I find that my daughter says such interesting things that might not fit in those parameters if I don’t pull her down that path.
[05:18] Sarah Stewart Holland: So in our book, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) A Guide to Grace-filled Political Conversations, we walk adults through the lessons we’ve learned by having hard conversations with each other on our podcast, Pantsuit Politics. But we really think many of these ideas apply when having hard conversations with your kids as well. And one of the first steps that we think is essential is working on yourself first. And that means really thinking through your own values, your own policy positions, and being able to admit that you maybe don’t know the answer. Or admit you that you have a very specific perspective when you start talking about these things with your kids.
[05:54] Beth Silvers: I think this is especially important when we’re talking about really scary things for kids, like climate change and school shootings, because we talk a lot about separating your emotions from your values, from your policy positions. Those are all distinct things. And it’s really important, especially when you’re talking to kids, to explicitly name and affirm emotions, to say “that is scary, isn’t it?” There’s this television commercial that my daughter has seen several times and it’s about climate change and it really makes her nervous. It’s fires and winds and there’s a tsunami in it and it makes her agitated. And I always say, like, “we should feel agitated about this. This is scary.” And I think that’s step one. It’s just not step one through 15, right? It’s step one. And then we say, OK, what values do we bring to the conversation about climate change? We want to take good care of our earth. We don’t want to be wasteful. We want to show respect to our neighbors and to animals. And so we get into all of those things after we affirm that initial feeling of fear.
[07:01] Sarah Stewart Holland: Yes. A few weeks ago, I told my 10-year-old son, Griffin, that I read an article that said we should call climate change “climate collapse” instead of climate change or climate crisis. And he immediately burst into tears because he has such anxiety about climate change. And we talked about that. And we talked about it’s OK to feel anxious. I feel anxious. And as much as I would like to tell him everything’s gonna be OK, we’re gonna sort out climate collapse. We’ll get it solved before really bad things start happening to you, I can’t promise him that. And in other areas, particularly because of my own personal experience — I attended a high school where there was a school shooting. And so that story is so personal to me. And my kids have always known that that happened to me when I was in school. And I actually think the fact that I was so open with them, and talked about what happened, and that they see someone on the other side of that experience in their own parent has really dissolved some of the anxiety around the issue. I hate — truly hate — that it’s sort of a normal thing to them because their mom went through it. But I really think that’s what’s happened. And, you know, for better or for worse, that is something that they encounter a lot today in our public school systems with the drills and with the lectures and talks and the news stories. And so I think addressing that openly and honestly through my own personal story with them, and being able to say like this is what I went through, it was really hard, I don’t know the answer. I wish this was something that you were not having to deal with and just being open and affirming not only their emotions, but sharing my own anxiety and fear and trauma with them in age-appropriate ways, honestly, has really, really helped us have an ongoing conversation about that topic.
[08:53] Beth Silvers: Sarah, you said something there that I think a lot of people worry about, like what is age-appropriate when it comes to politics? Because in a lot of ways, we wish none of this was age-appropriate. We wish the idea of someone coming into a school with a gun was not appropriate for elementary school kids, but it is where we are. And so I know for me when I think about what’s age-appropriate, I’m really thinking about what can she relate to in some way? What kind of experiences in her life could help her understand something else? What kind of vocabulary am I using here? And am I letting her guide the conversation with her questions? So if I go more than a few sentences without breaking for her to say something, I feel like I’ve kind of lost the plot.
[09:33] Sarah Stewart Holland: Yeah, I think it’s really child-led. And I think especially paying close attention to the questions they are asking and the questions they are not in fact asking is really key. You know, it’s not like I set my sons down when they were toddlers and told them the story of my school shooting. But when it would come up, I would say, when they were really little, yes, when I went to school, somebody came to my school and hurt people. And I kept it really simple. And then as their questions grew more complex, so did my answers. But I really try to say, hey, are you scared about this? Do you want to know what’s going on? And sometimes, especially my middle child will say, no, I don’t want to know. And that’s OK. That’s fine, too. I definitely give them the space to ask or not ask questions about some of these tough topics.
[12:32] Beth Silvers: So often kids will bring you things not related to their experience, too. Just random what does this mean? I remember pretty vividly the first time Jane just piped up from the backseat of our car — I think she was in kindergarten — and said, “what are taxes?” And we talked about how taxes are money that we pay to help pay for her school, and the road that we’re driving on, and the firefighters that we saw at an event earlier that week. And, you know, just trying to put it again in terms that she could really relate to. And also not not interrogate her on where the question came from. Just what are taxes? Cool. Normal question. Let’s discuss.
[13:09] Sarah Stewart Holland: Well, because I think these conversations with our kids about politics are not the only place they’re having conversations about politics and our government. They are absolutely talking to each other about these topics. North Korea was like a super hot trending topic at my child’s elementary school for several months. They talked about it constantly. And my eldest son in particular would come home with questions. And so just acknowledging that, you know, they absorb this stuff among their peers, among other adults, and they’re sort of out in community settings and just knowing that it’s going to come your way and to take it one conversation at a time. And know that you can say, I don’t know, that you can affirm scary feelings. And that how your children feel when they leave the conversation is just as important as what they learn.
[14:01] Beth Silvers: I think one of the best examples that you can set in a conversation like North Korea, too, is to look something up together. Let’s find where this is on the map. You know, any question they have that you don’t know the answer to, teaching them how to find good information is better than any policy position I think that you can convey. Like, let’s admit what we don’t know. Let’s be curious about what the answer is instead of just leaving it there. And then let’s think through, OK, where could we go to find something helpful about this from a source that we trust?
[14:31] Sarah Stewart Holland: What we really want to do in these conversations is empower our kids not just to talk politics, but go out and be involved in the wider world. And that’s always what I try to keep in mind. If I can welcome them into the conversation, if I can invite them to think about these things and decide what’s important to them and what they care about, then I truly hope as they get older, the next step is we can talk about, OK, what do you want to do about this? Is there anything that you really care about that you want to work on? Community service projects, voting, getting out and registering other people to vote, running for office one day. I want to see them take part in this process, take part in our democracy. And so making it a constant presence in our home — especially because I ran for office and served in our local city commission, so my kids saw sort of the impact of that decision and how local politics can really affect your life. I want that to be a constant stream of understanding, a constant source of conversation, a thing that empowers us to go out and do community service projects or participate in political marches, which I’ve done with my kids. So that as they grow up, they can decide and they see this sort of wide range of opportunities and options to go out there and participate in the world.
[15:54] Beth Silvers: I think it’s really important to start early developing both in yourself and your kids, a capacity for attention, too. That some of these questions are really hard and sometimes there isn’t a clear-cut answer and you have to pick the best thing that you can, when it’s election time, between two options that both seem acceptable. And this comes up for us in our house around abortion. So, Sarah, I know we’ve both had the experience of kid coming home from school around the 2016 election saying, I heard Hillary Clinton likes to kill babies. And so we had to have the abortion conversation a little earlier than I might have preferred, but I tried to just roll with it like everything else. Absolutely, you can ask me about this. I will tell you the truth. And so I told my daughter that I think this is really hard, because I totally understand why people are uncomfortable with the idea of not having a baby when you’re pregnant. Those are the words that I used. You know, you have the baby in your belly and you decide that you’re not going to birth the baby. And so a doctor does a procedure to stop the baby’s heartbeat. And we talked about that. And my daughter was like, yeah, that’s really tough. We also talked about how important it is to be able to make decisions about your own body, and to think through those decisions with your doctor and your family. And how both of those things make sense. And we have to really think about which one we value more in a democracy. And so learning early on that we don’t have to make the other person the enemy, we can try to understand where everybody’s coming from, and then put our values to it to decide where we stand I think it’s an important skill.
[17:36] Sarah Stewart Holland: So we hope as you sit down with your own kids, you can bring these skills, feel empowered yourself to not only share your values, but to admit when you don’t know the answer, to look up the answer with your kids, and to talk about their place in the larger political world. And just the world in general.
[17:57] Beth Silvers: Thank you so much for listening today. You can find our podcast, Pantsuit Politics wherever you listen to podcasts. And you can find our book, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) A Guide to Grace-filled Political Conversations wherever you buy books. We’re on Instagram @pantsuitpolitics and on Twitter @pantsuitpolitic.
[18:15] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.