More than 12 months out from the 2016 presidential election and the political circus already appears to be in full gear.  We’ve got candidates coming out our ears, Facebook memes, and slanted reporting in every direction. It’s overwhelming, but to be honest, I kind of love it.  Sure, it can bring out the most obnoxious and judgmental in all of us but at least people care and have a voice with which to air their opinions.

I’ll never forget the day in 2012 when my son, a first-grader at the time, came home and asked me who I was voting for for president. What?? How could he not know?! I felt passionately about “my” candidate and I’m pretty sure *everyone* knew who I was voting for…except, apparently, my son.  How could we not have talked about it? It really opened my eyes to the importance of having these conversations with my children.  Politics don’t have to be a dirty four letter word and I take my responsibility of raising the next generation of voters seriously! So, from that point forward, I’ve made a point of discussing politics with my crew and here are a few tips I have gathered along the way:

1. Be respectful. The political arena is the perfect place to model how we can disagree with someone while still acting in a way we can be proud of.  This isn’t to say you can’t be passionate.  Or angry. My children know that I am quite angry about some of the things I see happening across our country, but I try hard to speak about every idea and every person respectfully.

2. Listen. You might think that kids don’t care a whole lot about the economy or international affairs, but if you give them the platform to speak, you just might be surprised.  Listening also invites children to ask questions, which helps keep the conversation on their level and focused on what is most important in their world. I love watching where my son’s mind goes when we talk about these things – he often helps me look at the same old problems in an entirely new light.

3. Reassure them that it it okay to disagree.  Encourage them to have their own opinions.  I treat politics a lot like I treat religion – I teach my children about my beliefs and expose them to the culture that surrounds it, but welcome them to follow their hearts and make their own decisions. I remind them that people we love may not share our opinions, and that is okay.  Neither of us are “right” or “wrong”. Similarly, I encourage my children to evaluate information with a critical mind.  Why did that commercial say so many bad things about that person? Do you think it’s all true?

4. Offer ways in which they can get involved. It can be as simple as taking them to the voting booth with you, watching the debates together (or certain clips, depending on age), or bringing them to meet with a local candidate.  If your child sparks an interest in a particular issue (environment, social equality, military, ect), it opens the door even further to opportunities for involvement.

One of my proudest parenting moments came when I was sitting with my children in a booth at our town diner a few months ago.  We were chatting about Presidents, past and present, and other political figures they had learned about in school.  They had lots of great questions about racial inequality, war, and welfare (which they referred to as “giving people money”).  Though I have strong opinions on all of those things, I tried to share with them both my view on the topic and why others might feel differently. Eventually the conversation turned toward legos, minions, and what we were going to do that afternoon, but the elderly woman who was sitting by herself in the booth next to us stopped at our table on her way out.  She said she liked the way I was talking to the children about such “adult things” and that it made her feel hopeful for the future of the country. “Maybe they will be the ones to clean up this mess!” she added with a smile.

To which, of course, I received a chorus of 3 little voices inquiring, “What mess??”  ::deep breath:: “Well, kiddos…”