How to Speak to Our Children During the Presidential Election

Bob Weiman

Associate Head of School and Lower School Director

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School

I was looking through a memory box from my childhood recently and found many interesting items: a bronzed baby shoe, a tooth pillow for the tooth fairy, one of my favorite stuffed animals, some pictures of my dad on a college road trip to Las Vegas, and my button collection. As I looked through the buttons that I amassed from different events and experiences, it made me think about this year’s presidential election.

I am a political junkie, and the seeds of this affliction were sown many years ago. When I was in middle school and high school, while my friends were listening to the Greaseman and Howard Stern on the radio, I was listening to WTOP to get the latest news. As a middle schooler, I was able to experience the political process up close. My mom worked for a DC councilman who ran for mayor, so I spent hours at a time at his campaign headquarters stuffing envelopes and making phone calls. I rode around the city in a van with a megaphone on top of it and handed out flyers at metro stops and performed magic at nursing homes before the candidate would speak. I loved living in DC and experiencing such grassroots political endeavors. (My buttons also reminded me of other places that I love, like London and San Francisco!)

I also enjoyed celebrating our presidents and the peaceful and joyful transfer of power on their inauguration days and have the souvenir buttons to prove it. I attended Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade in 1976, Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 and 1984 (it is a little known fact that his second inaugural parade took place in Florida, so it is especially neat that I was there), George Bush’s in 1988, and Barack Obama’s in 2012. It was so exciting to watch the marching bands and performers and to try to get a glimpse of the President or Vice President! Growing up in DC we also attended various celebrations and commemorations on the Mall, such as Hands Across America. We cheered for the Redskins as they won the Superbowl and attended the Jackson Victory Tour concert when it came to RFK stadium, and I have buttons commemorating those events as well.

This summer I watched some of the coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. I really enjoyed the state roll call votes, which were a mix of history and pop culture and hyperbole. I watched the full acceptance speeches by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. During and after both conventions I listened to podcasts for analysis and went on Politifact and Factcheck to see where both parties adhered to and strayed from the truth.

And while I still enjoy the political process and appreciate watching democracy in action in this incredible country of ours, I am finding it harder and harder to stomach the divisiveness, the snarkiness, the ugliness of this campaign season. I worry about what this will look like in the final weeks of the campaigns and how it will affect our students.  So this election season has certainly posed a lot of challenges for us as adults.

In the Lower School at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, we have decided to address the election in a few different ways.  The first is to focus on the political process:  citizenship, political parties, the importance of voting, the electoral college, etc. The second is to be clear about what it means to speak respectfully and to respect other’s opinions and ideas. And in the final stretch of the election season, we’ll add a third topic: how to win or lose gracefully.

As adults we need to try our best to role model this and also to explain to our children not only what we believe but why we believe as we do (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course.) Also, share with them some specific reasons why reasonable people might support a different candidate than you do. These approaches will help them to be informed, thoughtful, reflective citizens and people. Also, if you have the chance, I would highly recommend that you canvas for your candidate of choice.  This is a great lesson in the political process- understanding that campaigns are more than commercials and debates and soundbites. Finally, regardless of whether your candidate wins or loses, living in the DC area provides us the unique opportunity to experience the inauguration or inaugural parade.

I do realize that, in this very heated and divisive election season, this is all easier said than done. I hope that these resources will be helpful as you have these important conversations with your children.