It’s been quite the week in politics – and while there’s been a massive, sweaty heatwave to provide distraction from Boris Johnson’s arrival as PM and subsequent cabinet reshuffle, it is not everyday (or not quite) that Britain gets a new prime minister.
Obviously your kids might be more interested in the potential for waterfights (high) or being allowed their third ice-lolly of the day (less probable). But having a quick chat about why there’s a new person running the UK might be somewhere on the agenda.
Will your kids be interested? On the one hand there are bleak reports like this one from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which begins: “It is known that young people have depressingly low levels of political interest and knowledge”, but on the other there are children striking against climate change.
“I think younger children are more politically engaged as a direct consequence of upsets like Brexit and Trump and the reality of climate change,” says Anna Bassi, editor-in-chief of The Week Junior, a news and current affairs magazine for 8-14-year-olds. “They’re probably quite cross with a lot of adults of voting age for getting ourselves into these situations.”
“Building people or concepts into big cartoon baddies can be quite overwhelming, especially for a child who feels powerless”
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, finds her patients often express concern about world events and political decisions that will affect their future. “With so much happening in the world, and such ready access to news through social media, it is important that parents are able to have a dialogue with their children about issues that concern them,” she says. “Parents should encourage children to understand issues from a range of perspectives, and promote tolerance and diversity.”
Question is, how to go about it. Big news events can provoke massive emotional responses from adults – which can easily turn individuals, such as Boris Johnson, or ideas, such as Brexit, into terrifying boogeyman figures for children, and have them convinced Doomsday is upon us. Whether implicitly or explicitly, your children will likely be aware of your concerns.
After 2016’s election of Donald Trump there were countless tales – some almost certainly apocryphal, but others presumably true – of children convinced they were at enormous risk. One teacher told The Atlantic about an eight-year-old asking her if he was going to die that day, because he had heard that the new President was going to press a button and blow everyone up with a bomb.
“The tricky thing is that scary headlines mean everything is presented as a crisis all the time,” says Bassi. “Adults talk about these things in quite heated ways, so it’s important to consider, when discussing politics with a child or even with a child present, what response they might have to what they hear.”
Thinking about the impact of your words, she says. “And try not to amplify, exaggerate or use the language of crisis and hysteria. Building people or concepts into big cartoon baddies can be quite overwhelming, especially for a child who feels powerless to do anything. It’s a moral obligation not to terrify a child.”
“Emphasise the power that children do have, and actively encourage them to express how they feel about political issues”
Emphasising the power that children do have, and actively encouraging them to express how they feel about political issues can have huge advantages, says Dr Dubicka. Kids might not be able to vote, but they still have a voice and, as recent events like the international climate change school strike and the US’s March For Our Lives shows, they can still make an impact. Even on an individual household basis, nearly half of American teenagers believe they have some influence on how their parents vote.
“Providing positive examples of how young people can use their voices, such as the inspirational example of Greta Thunberg and her climate change movement, can demonstrate to young people that it is possible to be heard and make a difference,” says Dr Dubicka. “Helping young people to be heard can also help them to feel more empowered and increase their self-efficacy which is also important for good mental health.”
Misinformation and misinterpreted information are also major concerns, which media literacy can combat, teaching children to be critical consumers of information. Making sure children know that news outlets have agendas, whether political or financial, is important, as is clearly delineating fact and opinion. Bassi cites CBBC’s Newsround as a great source of news for children, and she and her colleagues at The Week Junior emphasise that they take their responsibilities extremely seriously.
“When writing about really scary events like terrorist attacks, it’s important to remember to include examples of good behaviour as well – people rushing to the scene to help and make a difference – and make it clear that these attacks are conducted by a small minority of people with extreme beliefs,” Bassi says. “It’s important to keep things in perspective.”
But don’t dodge talking about politics for fear of upsetting your kids. “Much of what we hear in the media today is distressing, and children and young people can be bombarded with negative news,” says Dr Dubicka. “Helping them to make sense of what they have heard is important, as well as thinking about how they can make a difference.”