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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017 12:05 am

Making sense of the shouting match

How to talk to kids about politics

State Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, here with her four-year-old twins, tries to be positive when telling her children about her work. Writer Elizabeth Watson gathered advice from Sara and several other parents on how to talk to kids about politics. Page 6.


Mike Lockenour talked about politics a lot when he was young. He remembers Walter Cronkite’s voice explaining Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra. He learned about current events once a day, in black and white, on the nightly news. “It’s totally different today,” says Mike, a CWLP maintenance planner and father to three daughters.

Social media, he says, takes news to an alarming extreme. Plus, it’s hard to tell what’s true and false – especially for kids. “There’s so much information out there, and they don’t know what to believe,” says Mike. “If kids are going to understand it, their parents are going to have to help.”

Meet them where they are
State Representative Sara Wojcicki Jimenez says her twins, who are barely four years old, don’t watch the news. They’re more into “PJ Masks,” the popular animated series about friends with superhero alter egos. Political discussion – which naturally comes up in the Jimenez home – has to be adjusted to the boys’ age. “I really try to be as positive as I can about my work experience, even though many days it’s challenging,” Jimenez says. She says even in a “hyper-tense, combative and volatile environment” she tries to exhibit the kind of respectful discourse she wants for her sons’ generation.

But being positive can have its limits, especially as children get older. What about violence, bigotry and all the rest of the scary stuff kids inevitably learn exists in the world? Shaista Shaikh, a University of Illinois Springfield graduate student employed at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, says she wrestles with raising a Muslim family in a sometimes disrespectful or outright threatening world. “The tentacles of Islamophobia are very long and very strong,” Shaista says. She keeps the focus on tolerance and helps her kids distinguish between people’s friendly (if clumsy) conversation starters about their religion and truly offensive remarks.

“Kids are curious,” Shaista says. “If the question is respectful and genuinely looking for knowledge, then answer. If it’s condescending, don’t.”

Talk the talk
Ella Unal, 16, of Springfield High School, says kids do want to have those tough conversations – and they’re already having them amongst themselves. Class discussions that touch on current events have been more heated than usual, and social media has been abuzz with political content. Some students get all their news from social media, which has the potential to be problematic, but Ella says the positive is that social media is “a good place to talk about opinions and beliefs.”

Though many of her friends are feeling discouraged with the current political climate, Ella encourages them to focus on what they can do: “It’s important for us to vote in the next election,” she says.

Jimenez says, more than anything, she doesn’t want young people to be so turned off by our current political climate that they choose not to go into public service. She urges students to keep learning, be good listeners, ask their teachers to discuss current events and get involved. “To not talk about it would be very problematic for our next generation of leaders,” Jimenez says.

Mike says rather than assuming you know what kids are wondering, parents should frame their discussion as a Q and A rather than a lecture: “Ask the kids to ask the questions instead of preaching to them. Allow them to form their own opinions.”

According to Ella, Mike is right on target. She says kids need their parents to talk to them about politics in a way that’s patient, approachable and open. “Your child is probably going to know your opinion, but it’s about not forcing them to share that belief,” she says.

Onward and upward
The morning after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, Shaista wasn’t sure what to say to her kids. She wasn’t feeling very positive at the moment, but she knew she needed something to tell her three children that would help them make sense of an election that felt personal. She told them, “It’s not the end of the world. It’s an awakening for us to realize what we can do. What can I change? Be the best Muslim you can be. Somehow it’s all going to work out.”

You can’t fight disrespect with disrespect, Shaista says, and you can’t solve a problem without identifying what you can do from your own end. She tells her kids the first step to handle politics – and heck, life in general – is to feel confident and good about yourself. Then you can share your message.

Elizabeth Watson is an independent media consultant and mother of three in Springfield. She loves talking about politics, religion, culture – and how it all relates to raising kids.


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