Election talk is everywhere right now, even in places not known for having much to do with politics. Whether or not you intend for your kids to be exposed to the current contest for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s all around them, too.
If the discourse is getting heated between grownups, it is fair to wonder if the election talk that wears many of us out is having a similar effect on our kids. Meri Wallace, a licensed clinical social worker who is also a regular contributor to Psychology Today’s website, cites the cultural environment, particularly the bad behavior that continues to be normalized in our entertainment as a factor.
According to Wallace, children are watching and learning through example from the brutality that competitors in unscripted television shows heap on their opponents. Wallace went on to suggest that even scripted television reflects a lack of compassion, as dialogue is often peppered with cruel putdowns for laughs.
Are kids exposed to similar examples when election talk turns into a free for all? What happens when young people see how pop culture figures – and by extension Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and their supporters – behave? A child’s negative response can go in one of two directions. At worst, they will mimic the negative behavior. If a character is rewarded on television, won’t they dominate and win, too? Other children may find such bad examples confusing. They are not only not impressed, they are often disappointed and sometimes even frightened by the behaviors they witness.
“The election has become a similar form of entertainment. Candidates for president of our country should be models of the highest values of human interaction. Instead, with the bullying, mudslinging and often abusive behavior that is going on, they are displaying what I consider to be the lowest common denominator of interpersonal relationships. This bullying and meanness raise tremendous anxiety about the future for the children and adults who are watching.”
What To Do When The Election Talk Is Too Much
Election talk is hitting all of us all the time in ways that go beyond specific broadcasts, such as the various debates and paid political advertising. Events that are part of the political season, such as the primaries and national conventions, have been historically considered safe viewing because they present a look at the processes and traditions associated with our electoral process. Unfortunately, they are no longer venues that could be considered safe zones from negative speech. So should we limit kids’ exposure to these happenings even if they could be considered a source for learning?
Wallace suggests careful screening of what we allow our children to see, along with frank conversations about whether the behavior on the screen is something to be emulated or a living lesson in what not to do. What many children see are grownups disregarding rules that provide a sense of stability. Adults may shake their heads at the election talk, but kids are seeing a situation that is scarily out of control. Talking it out in a calm manner might alleviate some of the anxiety young people have about the upcoming election.
BBC’s political reporter, Kristina Cooper writes that even avocational political junkies can and more often than not do get swept up in the drama of elections. In her May 6 article on the election in the U.K., Cooper reminds us that no matter how much information we take in, we need to recognize that this is still a very emotional process.
“But, as psychologists like to remind us, we’re not rational beings. Setting aside individuals who earn a living listening to politicians (mainly journalists and economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies), most people probably don’t read manifestos or carefully digest the Today programme’s interviews with politicians. Of course, many people keep across the news – but how many of us could recite each party’s position on eliminating the deficit? “
Judith Miller, a psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today, takes the position there are some lessons we can take away from this current election season that have more to do with checking our responses and thus modeling better behavior. According to the Miller, we need to develop an instinct for stopping and listening to people who don’t share our views.
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Nonstop election talk can indeed push many people into a state where every exchange feels like a contest that must be won at any cost. Sometimes that price is too high, relationships are changed or broken, and an overall sense of peace and safety is destroyed when bullying becomes the new normal. When we check our emotional responses to ideas we disagree with, we model behavior on how to handle these situations in a peaceable and compassionate manner that not only encourages the same from the kids who are watching us, but may be helping them feel safe.
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