Q: My fifth-grade daughter's class has been watching presidential debates as homework. She is upset that candidates say things that would get kids into trouble if they said them in school. She's developing a cynical attitude that I want to counter. What's the best way?
A: In classrooms and living rooms, discussing the road to the White House should be a fun, every-four-year opportunity to teach civics, history and "why we value living our democracy," says Marissa Gehley, a youth counselor with deep experience in California school districts. "But lately, I've been getting calls from parents and teachers saying, 'How do I deal with the bullying and name calling and the hate we're seeing on TV?'"
Gehley tells parents that it's really important to address students' concerns head on without being political.
"Since when," she asks, "did it become not OK to say that, 'In our class or in our home, we don't bully people, call them names or disparage them because of their race, ethnicity or disability'?"
Gehley adds that parents should teach the Golden Rule:
"Kids want assurances that we wish to treat others the way we wish to be treated. Being inclusive, respecting others' points of view are very much a part of American exceptionalism."
She acknowledges that kids have real questions, like "'Will my family have to leave our home? Will this or that candidate send my dad to war again? Will my aunt be hurt if she attends a rally?' Give kids a chance to ask their questions and discuss them honestly. Just having you listen can dispel a child's fear."
An Orlando, Florida, fifth-grade teacher wrote to me complaining that she "never expected to hear a question about a candidate's genitals in our social studies class."
But in this column, I try to calm worried parents by telling them to do two things: Clearly state that name calling and disrespect are not in your family's values, and talk to your children about the entire election process, not just the one-off comments in the debates. Use resources such as Time For Kids, Newsela and Scholastic News and C-SPAN Classroom.
Another great resource I've found is iCivics, a website inspired by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. It offers games, lesson plans and other educational content to teach students about our democracy.
"There isn't a kid in America who doesn't find this election relevant, and so parents will find many teachable moments," says Emma Humphries, chief engagement officer at iCivics. "For example, if your daughter says a particular candidate is going to win because a poll says so, this is a good opportunity to teach about polling. Is the poll scientific? Who conducted it and how many people were asked? The website realclearpolitics.com does a nice job presenting multiple polls and averaging the results."
Humphries says that families will especially enjoy the the iCivics game "Win the White House": "It shows the many steps candidates must take to win and helps explain tricky concepts like the Electoral College."
While they may be tempted, parents shouldn't run away from a discussion about the campaign, says Humphries. "When we confront fear and cynicism with knowledge and more engagement, kids can see that people have this really inherent good nature. They don't want violence, but more civility and dignity."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)