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Embracing Politics as an Opportunity to Teach

By Mary Margolis - September 2012

Before we become overwhelmed by the last weeks of the Presidential election and tune out the many talking heads who espouse their own spin, we may want to consider the opportunity that elections provide as a teaching opportunity for our children and/or grandchildren to think for themselves. It’s not so much about political activism as it is about using these real life issues as a classroom to learn how to rise above emotionally-based discussions and automatic alignment with one side or the other.

The top issues are jobs and the economy, with health care as a close second. But websites of the candidates and major publications include at least a dozen more issues including federal deficit reduction, immigration, and our energy policy. Not only is each of these issues complex, but the sheer number of them daunting.

We can do several things to help make sense of this process.
Check the facts
Both sides of the political debate will have valid points but will also distort or misstate the facts to support their view or to discredit their opponent. Most campaign rhetoric is fear based—that is, pointing out the negative aspects of their opponent rather than the positive aspects of their candidate. Like it or not, this is our political system.

What we can do is to show our children how we can educate ourselves on the facts. Several fact-checking websites may be useful:
Balance your reading
Practice reading articles and editorials from the left and the right.  Encourage your children to pick out statements that elicit an emotional response and do not appear to be supported by facts; suspicious statistical quotes that are conveniently self-serving and that may have been taken out of a broader context; or sweeping assumptions made from minimal facts.
Listen to the Presidential Debates
Encourage your children to listen for emotion-based sound bites.  You might even make a game of it by identifying what emotional response the candidate is looking for.  Research and discuss what the real facts are.
Attend local political candidate forums or debates
Get involved in your local communities and make a point of becoming informed about the issues and each candidate’s views.  Attend forums prepared to ask a few pointed questions to understand the candidate’s position.  Take your children along if you can; otherwise, make a point of discussing with your children what you observed.
Discuss how we form opinions
Discuss how we weigh the facts against our own beliefs and values in order to arrive at  opinions about each issue.   Resist the temptation to tell your child how they should think, as strongly-held emotional issues have a way of being passed on to the next generation with the same degree of fervor; sometimes, however, they adopt the polar opposite position.  Instead, encourage your children to thoughtfully develop their own opinions.  Encourage a dialogue that includes dissenting view points.  If you agree on an issue, factually discuss why others disagree.    
By teaching children how to think rather than what to think, we will give them the skills they need to develop their own independent thinking.
Current political events provide a wealth of opportunities to develop these skills. The presidential election will be decided not by those who are hard and fast on the right or the left, but by those in the middle. By helping your children to learn how to listen with a critical ear and weigh facts against their own values and beliefs, their vote and yours can make even more of a difference.

Efforts toward independent thinking can not only activate leadership qualities, but can serve as an adaptive mechanism to deal with inevitable changes that occur in our families, our communities, our country and our world.