"Who does Daddy like?" my friend recently asked her 2-year-old. "Trumple!" she screamed out with the mischievous look of a toddler who is about to get a reaction out of her mom. My friend corrected her that the family was for Biden.
"Biiii-den," she repeated while looking at her mom, and a moment later she was back to chanting "Daddy likes Trumple" as she ran around and giggled. We all laughed, wondering where do they learn this stuff anyway?
Children learn "this stuff" everywhere, as it turns out. Political talk is on constant display on television, on social media, at the dinner table, at school and in the adult conversations kids overhear every day. Don't think that children are not paying attention and piecing it all together — that would be an inaccurate underestimation of their ever-absorbent brains.
As adults, we may have long ago picked a side, dug in our heels and surrounded ourselves with people who agree with us; but when it comes to the children in our lives, there is good reason to rethink the way we talk about politics and perhaps even expose them to the other side.
The dangers of division for children
"As early as preschool, kids start to identify with one group over another and develop a sense of who they are and where they fit in in the world," said Dr. Neha Chaudhary
, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School co-founder of Brainstorm
, Stanford's lab for mental health innovation.
Being surrounded by members of only one group as their identity is developing may deprive children of important skills. "I worry that kids who grow up strictly on one side of the political divide will miss out on learning how to engage in disagreements in a civil way later in life," Chaudhary said.
Small children are also concrete thinkers who see the world in simple "good" or "bad" terms.
When parents talk about how strongly they disagree with other people, children start to interpret it as "those are bad people," said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication
Defining people as good or bad based solely on whether they agree with us or not sends the wrong message to children and contributes to the existing division in this country.
"Younger children just aren't yet able to separate (ideas from people)," Chaudhary said. Although adults may at times want to label a person with a disagreeable idea as a bad person, "that type of discourse is best left for the grown-up discussions."
Resisting the labels and rethinking the way we frame issues around children may bring large benefits.
Start modeling good behavior
"In time, 2020 will define this generation," said Ginsburg, who is also the author of "Building Resilience in Children and Teens
." In addition to being an election year, 2020 is the year they had to be separated from friends and family due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It's also a year marked by a societal awakening to long-standing racial injustices.
"When (this generation) comes back together, when they're able to hug their grandparents again, go to schools and learn next to each other, worship together — they're going to have an appreciation for the power of human connection and presence like no one else ever has," Ginsburg said.
This generation too has the potential to become the problem solvers our country badly needs. "All of the ingredients are in place, except the adults are not modeling proper behavior," he added. "We are squandering this amazing opportunity."
What's needed from the adults
"Kids are listening and observing our own actions and reactions to the world," explained Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
She frequently sees parents discuss difficult conversations around children, without addressing them directly.
"Parenting is hard. It takes a lot of growth and self-awareness to manage our own needs, emotions and challenges," Robles-Ramamurthy said. "In my clinical practice and my personal life, I strive to discuss values and morals that are important to me without trying to impose my own needs onto my children," she added.