Children tend to pick up on the big things happening around them, so it’s only natural they’d know the U.S. is in the midst of a major political moment, even if they haven’t had explicit conversations about it.
From overheard discussions to classroom lessons to TV commercials to yard signs, there are many indications that it’s election season, but what kids may not know is what, exactly, it all means. Fortunately, parents can help with that.
“Helping children understand the election process and inviting them to discuss their views helps them feel involved and included, builds their critical thinking skills, and develops their sense of civic responsibility,” Andrea Barbalich, editor-in-chief of The Week Junior, told HuffPost. “They may also have inaccurate information that needs to be corrected, which can help ease any worries they may have.”
Talking to children about the election can make the process more understandable and lay the foundation for them to develop into engaged, informed voters as adults. These conversations can also help kids understand the right and privilege of voting and what it means to be a member of a community.
“They will hear the message that what they think and believe matters and realize that they can someday have a say in electing the leaders who will make decisions for them,” said Christine French Cully, editor-in-chief of Highlights magazine. “Then they begin to think of themselves as people with agency — even changemakers. When we talk about these bigger ideas with kids, we stoke their confidence, strengthen their voice, and encourage empathy and optimism for a world that only gets better when thoughtful citizens engage.”
But how can parents go about explaining the voting process to kids, particularly some of the more complicated aspects like the electoral college? Below, Barbalich and other experts share their advice.
Start with building blocks.
It’s never too early to start your child on the path to becoming an engaged citizen. Kids are more perceptive than many adults realize, so they pick up on what’s happening around them and naturally, have questions.
“There are many age-appropriate ways to feed children’s curiosity about the election,” said Lesli Rotenberg, chief programming executive and general manager of children’s media and education at PBS. “With subjects like the election and the voting process for younger kids, we think the basic building blocks ― curiosity, civic duty, community and fairness ― are a good place to start to help explain the concept of voting and elections.”
A simple way to break down voting is that it’s the idea of voicing your opinion on something, like when people pick their favorite picture in an art contest to help determine the winner. Parents should use examples their kids can relate to.
“Teachers often ask their students to vote on class-specific activities — popcorn or pizza party?” said Joann Suen, co-founder of Xyza: News for Kids. “By voting, kids are given the power to voice their opinion and a sense of pride that their voice counts. These real-life examples of the voting process helps to instill the idea that voting is important and a way to make their voices heard.”
Share the history of voting.
“Parents can explain the U.S. election and voting process to their kids by teaching them about the history of voting, the different milestones and hurdles many groups had to overcome to get the right to vote, and why it’s so important to engage in the process,” said Alexandra Hoerl, a history, writing and government tutor with the tutoring marketplace Wyzant.
Kids can learn about the Founding Fathers and the principles outlined in the Constitution, including the exclusion of certain groups from the democratic process.
“Let your child lead with topics about the election that they are interested in.”
“Teaching children about pivotal moments in history is the best way to convey how important voting is, and why so many advocacy groups still have to fight to protect access to the polls in the 2020 election,” Hoerl said. “From women’s fight to get the vote, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are so many milestones that parents and kids can talk about together.”
Tailor the conversation to your child.
“It’s natural for kids to have questions, and their curiosity gives parents an opportunity to engage them in a conversation about the election and the voting process,” said Barbalich.
She advised parents to speak to their children honestly, directly and calmly, and to encourage them to ask any questions they may have about the American political process.
“Let your child lead with topics about the election that they are interested in,” suggested Suen. “Perhaps your child is interested in why presidential candidates participate in debates. Talk about the history of presidential debates and whether they have been accurate predictors of the election. Or perhaps your child is interested in the process for getting to the White House. Share how the long process begins with announcing one’s candidacy! Or your child might be interested in who had the right to vote, why people had to fight for the right to vote, or when specific people were given the right to vote — topics that we as adults might need familiarize ourselves with.”
If you don’t know the answer to a question your child asks, look it up together and let more discussions flow from the process of researching these topics.
Break down the electoral college.
As your children develop better comprehension and math skills, you can speak more specifically about the electoral college and other election process specifics. Explain that there is a popular vote, which is just a count of every voter’s individual vote, but also the electoral vote, which is a bit more complicated and is the formal process that decides who becomes president.
“When explaining the electoral college to children, it’s best to focus on three main areas: what it is, why we have it, and how it works,” said Emilie Martz, a reading, writing, literature and history tutor with Wyzant.
Parents can note that the electoral college is a group of 538 people called “electors,” who come from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and cast votes on behalf of the people living in their home states. For the most part, the electors vote for the person that the majority of people in their state voted for. Some states get more electors because more people live there, and a presidential candidate must get more than half of the 538 electoral votes (so 270 or more) in order to win and become president.
“Explain the voting process by comparing it to a schoolwide election for student body president,” Suen suggested. “If the school election process was an exact replica of the U.S. election process, every student would get a chance to vote (popular vote) and every classroom would be given x number of representatives (electors) based on the number of students in the classroom, For example, a class with only 20 students might only get two electoral votes vs. a class with 30 students might receive three.”
She continued, “On Election Day, all students will get the chance to cast their vote, but their vote actually determines the electors of their classroom. These electors then cast their vote for the student body president based on the votes of the classmates in their classroom. The candidate with more than half of the votes receives all of the electoral votes allotted to the class. When all of the electoral votes are counted, the candidate with the majority of electoral votes wins the election.”
Show them the electoral map.
The electoral college system can be difficult to understand, even for adults, but looking at maps can help.
“It’s really fun to look at a map of the United States to see how many electoral votes each state has,” Barbalich noted. “This helps bring the idea to life. To help personalize it, you might look at how many electoral votes your state has, compare that to states where other family members live, and discuss why there is a difference.”
Maggie McGuire, CEO of the kid-focused streaming service Pinna, advised looking at interactive electoral maps online that show how victories in different states can add up to the 270 votes needed to win.
“Watching live on Election Day and seeing how the electors start to add up provides great context for this, while letting kids track the states in real time,” she said.
Prepare to answer questions.
Typical questions kids may ask include “What if one person wins the popular vote but the other wins the electoral vote?” and “Why do we use the electoral college anyway?”
For the the first question, it can also be helpful to offer a historical lens by pointing out examples of previous elections in which the popular vote and electoral vote results were different. You can explain that these differences make some people think the system is unfair.
“It’s impossible to limit our own biases, but we can share them with our kids to encourage honest conversation and give them the opportunity to see multiple viewpoints on an issue.”
As for the reasoning behind the electoral college, Martz shared a few explanations.
“We use the electoral college system because back before modern technology such as computers and phones, trying to think of a way to accurately tally a popular vote was a monumental undertaking,” she said. “Not to mention, it was much harder to educate yourself on each candidate’s platform. The Founding Fathers, not wanting Congress to just select the leader, decided that they needed to find a balance between the popular vote and ensuring that the democratic system was set up to choose the best candidate. Having a few people communicate the opinions of their community seemed like a fair and reasonable way to design elections, and it has been in place ever since.”
Parents can also note that the electoral college system was also a way to give more power to rural states with fewer people, and that people continue to debate whether or not that’s fair. It’s also worth emphasizing that only certain people were allowed to vote when the country was founded, so other groups had to fight for their right to take part in the system.
Encourage them to see different viewpoints.
When presenting these explanations to children, parents should be mindful of how their own biases and beliefs color their interpretations of the process and acknowledge them as part of the conversation, said Rupa Mehta, founder of Subject of Self, a free social-emotional learning curriculum for kids.
She believes this helps kids form their own opinions on things like the electoral college and gives them the opportunity to understand different perspectives, which helps them develop stronger interpersonal skills to engage in productive civic discourse.
“It’s impossible to limit our own biases, but we can share them with our kids to encourage honest conversation and give them the opportunity to see multiple viewpoints on an issue,” Mehta explained. “If the learning environment is built on respect and honesty, then kids will be more willing to develop their own opinion and respectfully share it with others, whether they agree or disagree with their parents, teachers, or peers.”
Use educational media.
“For older kids, parents, caregivers and educators can use the PBS Electoral Decoder on PBS LearningMedia, which has supporting materials that include background reading and activities to help explain the electoral college,” said Rotenberg, adding that the PBS Kids’ YouTube channel has a playlist of clips about voting and community.
McGuire pointed to Pinna’s “Time for Kids Explains” podcast, which has covered several topics around the election, like getting to know the candidates, the different ways of voting in 2020, and the history of voting rights in the U.S.
The Week Junior has published several relevant articles, including an explainer on the electoral college, instructions for how to throw an election party, and the results of its Junior Voices survey of 700 kids aged 8-14 across the U.S. on the election and the issues that matter most to them.
Wyzant recently launched a free video series dedicated to voting and other civics topics, and Xyza has an election video series as well. There’s also an abundance of resources on Common Sense Media and WeAreTeachers.
Talk about values.
“Don’t be afraid to teach your child about political parties,” said licensed educational psychologist Reena B. Patel. “Think of yourself as a nonpartisan leader and explain each party core values and beliefs. Discuss how they compare with your own family’s values.”
Many aspects of the electoral process lend themselves to conversations about values and beliefs.
“If kids see a negative campaign ad or hear one candidate say something negative about another, ask them how they feel about it,” advised Barbalich. “Do they think the ad is effective? Why or why not? What would they do differently if they were running for office? Discuss the importance of honesty and kindness. And make it clear that disagreeing about the issues is OK. We all do not have to agree on everything in order to get along and work together.”
Research candidates together.
A natural extension of the values and political parties conversation is an examination of the individual candidates running for office. Parents can talk to their children about their beliefs on different issues and help them identify candidates whose outlook matches their own.
“Bring up each candidate’s names for not just the presidential office, but for your local community as well (mayor, city council, etc),” said Patel. “Visit websites together to do research on the candidates. Encourage your child to engage in a healthy dialogue of what they look for in a leader who will be watching out for their best interest.”
This exercise can help kids learn about the different elected positions in our political system and the roles they play in government.
Include them in your voting process.
“Involve kids in the voting process!” advised McGuire. “Take them with you if you vote in person, or fill out your ballot with them if you vote by mail. Talk about who you’re voting for and why, and why you think it’s important to vote.”
Observing and participating in the process is a great learning experience for kids, who also may appreciate getting a new sticker. Even if you can’t take them to your polling place, show them what you did that day.
“You can find photos and videos online that can help you explain a ballot, a ballot box, and a polling place,” said Cully. “Talk about the role of poll watchers. Show your kids your voter registration card, which young kids often think is cool.”
Suen advised including kids in pre-voting activities as well to give them more tangible experiences and inspiration for questions.
“Search for information, read through the voter’s guide, watch the presidential debate, or attend a local town hall meeting together as a family,” she said. “These real-life experiences will help your child gain a better understating of the U.S. election.”
Many schools hold mock elections (either in-person or virtually in the COVID-19 era), but if your child’s school doesn’t, you could volunteer to create one.
“You can do this virtually as well by creating an online poll,” Patel noted. “SurveyMonkey is one suggestion. Share the results and make sure the children get a lesson in civil discourse. Teach them early on how to respect other opinions and rights of free speech.”