Facilitating Respectful Conversations About Politics with Kids

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of Get Gifted Students Talking: 76 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Identity, Stress, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)

Facilitating Respectful Conversations About Politics with KidsOur world is currently colored by bleak pandemic data, racial and cultural tensions, economic hurt, long lines at food banks, working and schooling from home, new kinds of school arrangements, social constraints, uncertainty about “life as we knew it,” and cabin fever. The global reach of COVID-19 means we can’t just “go somewhere different.” Financial security, mental health, physical health, relationships, familiar rituals, development of young talent, and much, much more feel threatened.

Kids’ antennae are tuned in to our adult tensions. They wonder and worry—and have questions that aren’t easily answered. We may visibly wince when they ask them. The gray fog of uncertainty tempts us to sweep the questions about health threats and politics aside—or respond with a hard-edged tone, reflecting our feelings of frustration with the big picture.

General Guidelines for Discussion with Kids

In general, I encourage you to remove the “answering burden” from your shoulders. Arranging a genuine discussion with kids is one way to do that. The beauty of a family or classroom discussion about complicated topics is that no one needs to be the “expert.” Most of the content can actually come from children and/or teens themselves—a “bottom-up” conversation instead of a “top-down” one. No test will follow, but more discussion probably will.

The value is in the process, in the discussing itself—not in a certain result or a specific understanding or “the right view.” Call attention to kids’ poise, patience, listening skills, respect, ability to pay attention to the speakers, and ability to both stay objective and express feelings. Offer facts if you have them, but only after hearing what the kids know, think, or feel. What follows here are some general guidelines.

Find out what kids already know. Ask, “So what do you know about the pandemic? What have you heard about it?” In a family, each member may have something to say, but it’s wise to start with the youngest school-age kids so that their comments are heard and respected. Those comments may generate discussion. You can also say, “If you tell us what you already know, we’ll all understand more together. We’re going to just talk—and whatever you say is okay.” COVID-19 is still a mystery. No one understands everything about it yet, so there aren’t any dumb questions or comments. But scientists are learning more about it every day and helping us understand it.

After all in the group, including the adults, have offered brief information, ask kids if they have questions. In discussions, wise adults use language appropriate for kids’ ages. After all, the discussion is for the kids, not the adults. If there are kids at many age levels in the group, the language level can vary, respectfully, but should be geared to the youngest now and then.

Though any raised question can be a “teachable moment,” you don’t need to teach—or be an expert. It’s good for kids to feel like respected contributors to an important discussion. If you do have some pertinent expertise, pause after a question. Model thoughtfulness. If you don’t know what to say, and don’t understand something, just say, “I don’t know.” That can take the pressure off—for you and for kids.

As you pause, think about “facilitating,” not teaching. Think about listening (“Yeah, that makes sense,” or, “So you’ve heard a reporter say we’ll probably need to wear masks for even more than a year.”) and helping move the discussion along (“Anyone else want to say something about that?” or, “You looked like you wanted to say something a few minutes ago.”).

Try to avoid telling kids what to believe or how to think. That’s not your job in this kind of discussion. Focus on listening. Give away most of your adult power and control.

Keep an open mind. Try to avoid thinking that there is a “totally right way” to think about the complicated topic.

Listen hard. Rather than asking questions, try to make nonjudgmental (accepting what was said) or nonevaluative (no indication of “right” or “wrong”) statements instead: “That shows you have compassion,” or, “I can tell you’ve been thinking hard about this,” or, “It makes sense that it’s scary for you.”

Encourage kids to elaborate. “I’d like to hear more about what you said,” or, “Tell us more about that.”

Compliment kids when they’re “making sense” of a complicated topic. “It’s complicated, and you’re making sense of it.” Compliment them when they ask a thought-provoking question: “Wow, I’ll have to think about it before I answer.”

Ask for clarification—as a way of showing interest and “punctuating” what was said. “So you’re thinking that staying home has actually been good for our family? What do you think, guys?” Or, “You’re saying that the protests made good things happen—am I understanding you okay?”

Talking About Politics

We also are living in an increasingly polarized and politicized world, and any complicated topic can quickly become political. Opposing views are routinely separated and amplified by commentators. To counter that, a family or classroom discussion might include the consideration that complicated situations are probably not purely right or wrong and that people’s views reflect their experiences. Kids can be told that if people learned to talk together and not fight over opinions, they might be able to make good things happen. Better than telling, however, is kids being able to talk about thorny concerns with nonjudgmental adults and offer their own young wisdom. That’s what “facilitation” can do.

To start, ask kids what they’ve heard about a controversial topic or if they have an opinion about something else they’d like to discuss. A family discussion might go something like this:

Teen 1: “I feel sorry for the people who have to decide—like governors and mayors. I think it’s more important to control the virus than it is to loosen the rules and get everybody shopping and partying again.”

Teen 2: “What about the people who lost their jobs—and need restaurants and bars and stores to open up and make money so they have a place to work?”

Child: “But what about the people in the meat factories who are getting sick?”

Teen 1: “Or the nursing homes where elderly people can’t see their relatives?”

Child: “Or Uncle Gerry—with COPD? That’s a preexisting condition, right?”

Adult (commenting on the process): “You guys are offering different views without raising your voices. That’s impressive.”

Adult (asking an open-ended question that invites elaboration): “If you had a small business, what would help you decide whether to follow the new, looser rules or stay closed?”

When we facilitate respectful discussion of complicated political topics, we can encourage kids to “listen hard.” We might even invite two teens to defend either a “for” or “against” position, then switch roles, and then reflect on the experience. There’s a lot we don’t know for sure, or don’t know all aspects of, these days. Helping kids listen carefully and respectfully without “pouncing” might help them navigate complicated political discussions throughout their lives.

To close a discussion, an adult might say, “If I said that a good mantra for living in this complicated world is ‘Embrace complexity,’ how would you interpret that?”

jean petersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

Free Spirit books by Jean Sunde Peterson:

Get Gifted Students Talkinghow and why to get students talking

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