Photo by samantha celera / Flickr

By Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media

In today’s world, when new lows in political discourse are commonplace, guiding your kids through election season feels overwhelming and, frankly, age-inappropriate. The truth is, training your kids to understand the news, view information critically, and become media-savvy can help your whole family survive this fraught political era. News literacy also teaches your kids skills that are essential for thriving in the digital age.

Do kids really care about news and the election anyway?

They do. According to our research, about half of kids say that following the news is important to them, and more than two-thirds say that consuming news makes them feel smart and knowledgeable. Where you come in: Ask them what happened in the world that day. (Kids like being in the driver’s seat.) Ask them how they feel about it and whether they’ve heard others talk about it.

Kids get most of their news from parents and friends. Your little ones also trust what you tell them — a lot. Where you come in: This is a great opportunity for you to model skills such as comparing different sources, investigating reporters’ credentials, and exploring facts vs. opinions.

They’d rather get their news from social media. As enlightening as it is to hear you explain the electoral college, they still prefer to watch it on YouTubeWhere you come in: Help curate your kid’s YouTube experience. If your kids are on social media, provide a check on some of the stuff they hear and see. Every creator has a perspective. Ask your kid what the point of view of a piece of media is. Talk about bias, and see if you can identify it.

Kids also often are fooled by fake news. Less than half of kids agree that they can tell fake news stories from real ones. Where you come in: Ask your kid what clues they look for to determine whether something is real or fake. Kids are actually pretty dialed in to the techniques used to create a deep fake video, for example.

Where do I even begin?

Have a prep talk. When the first out-of-left-field election story hits, prepare them for what’s to come. Say, “This is the first of many wild stories we’ll hear in the news since the election is coming up. Candidates are going to say and do things to get attention and grab headlines. Let’s just stay focused on the issues we care about.”

Capitalize on micro-moments. It’s not the dinner table lecture your kids will remember; it’s the daily interactions where you’re getting them out the door when they suddenly ask about the latest political crisis. Take these opportunities to share your take, if you can, but feel free to defer, too. You can say, “I don’t have the answer for that right now. But let’s go online and explore this together later.”

Understand outside influences. Kids are going to hear lots of stuff from teachers, broadcast news, and friends on the playground who may be exposed to more media than you allow. And if your kids are on social media or watch YouTube, election season could mean exposure to the wild and wacky world of internet “news” in the form of memes, YouTube influencers’ rants, extremist videos, trolls, digital advertising, and other stuff that may look credible but isn’t.

How do I talk to my kids about politics minus the salacious stuff?

As much as you may want to just avoid election season altogether, your job is to provide some structure in a world full of spin, scandal, and incivility. You may not have all the answers — and you’ll definitely be surprised on the daily — but your kids are looking for someone to be in charge. That’s you. And in order for our kids to be active, informed citizens, they need to learn how to understand the news, put it in perspective, and think critically about it. You may not be able to avoid all the yucky stuff, but you can try.

Talk about political advertising. How is a political ad like a regular commercial for a product? Is it selling a candidate just like another ad sells cereal? Who paid for the ad you’re watching? Can political ads actually influence the outcome of an election? Watch political movies to see how fictional political strategies mirror real-life ones.

Discuss the art of spin. Candidates are trained to stay “on message.” In debates, on the stump, and in interviews, you’ll notice that they try to stick to their talking points, avoid direct questions, and hedge when they don’t want to be pinned down. Point this out to your kids and see whether they can identify how candidates stick to their scripts. Ask, “Did they answer the question that was asked?” and “What words or phrases did they use to spin the conversation?”

Share political cartoons and memes. Mocking the candidates is a long-cherished tradition Americans can enjoy in the name of free speech. Poking fun at politicians takes some bite out of their often harsh statements, shows kids that challenging bold claims is part of our political process, and offers a sense of relief when the campaign rhetoric heats up.

Tackle the tough topics. With campaign rhetoric getting nastier, you may have to explain to your kids certain terms and situations you never thought you’d have to when they’re this age. Explain how candidates may bring up some things as a distraction or to get attention. Steer the conversation back to the important issues in the election. Ask your kids to identify two specific positions for each candidate to keep them focused on the real issues.

Ask how elections really work. Draw a link between your kids’ experience of student body elections or mock presidential elections at school and those on the state and national levels. Are elections just a popularity contest, or does someone win because they have the best ideas?

If you get stuck …

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