Saturday, May 22, 2010

Teaching Our Kids About Politics and Government

The topic of how to teach our kids about government and current events has been on my mind for a few reasons.

I am considering offering a class that touches on these topics in the fall at the homeschool co-op I am in but this is a touchy topic and one I'm not sure that I want to step into. One idea was to discuss current events, which would be one class that would not focus only on politics (or may not be about politics at all).

The second idea was to teach government and elections and watch the unfolding events as the November 2010 congressional elections take place, but I think that topic may be 'too hot to handle' given different family's views and issues of bias on my part too!

I need to make my decision as I believe soon I will have to turn in my course proposals.

An issue happened last week that I'll share in detail near the end of this post. My twelve year old was verbally attacked by another homeschool teen about politics. This was a parenting challenge for me and has underscored that how and what we teach our children about politics and government should also include etiquette about how to have (or whether one should avoid) discussing hot button topics with peers who they have to be around in paid classes they attend. Perhaps even young children should be taught the advice that adults often use "don't discuss religion or politics" at social events.

This morning I read an email on a homeschool chat list asking about ideas, books and materials, for an 8 and 10 year old to learn about politics and current events and following the fall 2010 elections. It occurred to me this mother seemed to be focusing only on current issues not including history.

I decided to blog my thoughts on all these topics since they are all related.


1. It is my opinion that at least covering the history of the founding of the United States of America and how our government was founded is essential to explaining politics and government today. I don't mean to start a debate by stating this, but I feel that teaching politics and government as JUST a current event is dangerous.

One reason is there is current debate over the Constitution, should we keep making law that upholds it or is it a "living document" that can or should be changed? I know this is big stuff for kids to grasp, and I don't know how far each family wants to get into this with our children, but, I do feel teaching the history of how and why our government was set up the way it is, is a great foundation to set before launching into the hot topics of today. I feel this because even when trying to discuss some small tidbit on the news it can easily lead directly to a foundational topic that should not be glossed over let alone avoided completely.

It is not easy to discuss current events or political elections on a shallow basis that is 'neat and clean' for elementary grade students. It would be easier to do a study of our government discussing the topics at a distance to try to keep things more sterile -- because if you include the current events it can get sticky or messy quite quickly.

Honestly, I'm of the opinion that I'd rather just delay teaching a topic to preserve a child's innocence or to keep things simple and carefree until some later time when the topic can be taught more deeply and discussed more honestly and thoroughly. I am sensitive also to not over-burdening young children with negativity that is beyond their control.

2. There is a series of picture books about a mouse which discusses the American government by Peter W. Barnes.  I recall seeing these for sale at a MassHope homeschool conference at a vendor called The Book Peddler. I don't own these books and have not used them.

Woodrow the White House Mouse

Woodrow for President: A Tail of Voting, Campaigns, and Elections

House Mouse, Senate Mouse

Marshall, The Court House Mouse


Mice Way to Learn About Voting, Campaigns and Elections

Mice Way to Learn About Government

2. You may want to read aloud The History of US by Joy Hakim, just start with volume one and see if you like it. (They may be purchased as a full set or each book can be purchased individually, or check a library.)

These books were intended for the child to read to themselves hence not as easy to read aloud, they have lots of sidebars and photos and illustrations. But this series is geared for discussion. You could read it aloud at your chosen pace and see if you think this is a good resource.

I feel that there are items for discussion that come up naturally. Hakim sometimes poses questions to the reader in the text that could be discussed orally with your children.

There is a teacher manual I don't own and don't plan to use it. My 12 year old and 10 year old are reading this series to themselves. I've read half of volume one and really like it. I'd intended for my husband and I to read it alongside them and discuss but I have been too busy then one child lost the book we own, and my husband was so busy traveling for work, then increased his work hours, so he hasn't read them yet. The things that get us off track can be so small and ruin the best laid plans.

3. I have not seen a lot of materials about discussing current events with kids age 8 and 10. Sometimes even understanding a short newspaper article requires having some foundational knowledge that children of that age might not yet know (refer back to my discussion earlier in this post of teaching how our government was founded and what its organizational structure is).

If I did use prepared materials to teach my children, I would be cautious about the bias of the writer.

I enjoy the free current events teacher guides at, one is published a day, they only archive the last 5, and not all are about politics and government, and some may be too deep or hard for kids age 8 and 10. They also are only publishing seasonally. I received an email stating in 2010 they will cease new content (free lesson plans) on Memorial Day and will resume after Labor Day. Their topics are NOT just politics and government.

I like that often Izzit plays Devil's Advocate. Sometimes the questions ask about the bias of the journalist. Some may argue that even discussing the other side of the story from what the journalist portrayed is Izzit pushing their own agenda or bias, but I'm of the mind that discussing both sides of an issue is important and how homeschooling families do this in the context of their own family's values and opinions is different than what school teachers have to contend with. If you think Izzit has a political slant to the conservative, I bet there are even more resources available to give you the liberal slant, if you desire that instead.

4. I have been thinking about the fall and the elections and how I could teach more about this and watch what unfolds. I don't have an answer for my own family yet as I feel much of what the media portrays is full of bias and sometimes is really nasty and shallow discussion of topics not really getting to the core of the issue. How much of this mess should children be exposed to? How much is enough? Is following the news by watching actual news programs on TV really the best way to teach this topic? If we choose print or digital media, what is the bias of that newspaper or magazine or website or blog? How much of it is pure reporting of facts versus editorializing?

The smear campaigns and the tactics used to try to put down someone with an opposing view by doing something like attacking them on a personal level is not really what I want to teach my kids about. I want the focus on the issue not on the arguing. My husband and I have already had talks with our kids based on what they see or hear in the news. But these are not provided in curriculum or lesson plans they are "made up along the way". I don't mean for that to sound casual. What I mean is that during a discussion with our children, they ask questions that no teacher manual may ever touch upon. We answer their question which leads to another question and another. You can't prepare this type of thing ahead of time in a lesson plan or purchase it bound into a book. I value these conversations and discussions, they unfold on their own as content is discussed if the child feels safe asking questions of the parent!

5. I also have been thinking about whether I should (finally) teach my children about logic and fallacies. If children learn these things they may be able to spot them when people they know, or media uses them with each other or when communicating to the viewer (such as in advertisements).

A homeschool mom friend (KL) referred me to this student workbook which she owns and feels can be taught directly from (there is also a  teacher manual): The Art of Argument (which she thinks is fine for for children age 10 and up). I was thinking of using this manual to teach a homeschool co-op class. Given the time constraints of the class just teaching from the book could take a whole session.

 So far I have not seen this book in my hands but some free samples can be viewed in a PDF document on this website. I see that Amazon also sells these at a discount price.

Student workbook that can be taught from directly:

Teacher Manual:

6. My 12 year old son was attacked at a homeschool class last week about politics by another student which included verbal bullying and insults. How the discussion segued from a discussion of an innocent topic into politics was swift and not initiated by my son, the teen made a leap into controversy after my son shared a joke dollar bill he saw in a store (just telling what he saw not making any opinion statement about it). The other student demanded to know which party my son supported and like a fool my son answered the question by just stating the party I'm affiliated with (I used to be an Independent but switched to one party, which I did in order to run for election for town council, and indeed I was elected and served my term).

This brought to light that we had not yet discussed how to handle political discussions let alone heated arguments!

Assumptions were then made that if you are a (insert political party) then you support (name of a politician who the media is bashing frequently lately) who is a (insert profane insult words). The teen went off on a rant while my son stayed silent. The rant included a raised voice and a rally to try to get the other students (all older than my son) to gang up on him and indeed some did join in. The closest thing to standing up for a differing view was one teen and the gist was (only), "I don't really care about any of those politicians so who cares who anyone likes or doesn't like". However weak I feel that was, my son felt this provided some relief for the ranting teen to finally drop the topic and lay off, so I'm grateful he said that comment even if it was bathed in apathy. The truth is, my son didn't know much about the politician this student was ranting and raving about his hatred for, but my son was personally attacked because the kid thought my son was a fan of that person.

Another upsetting thing was the ranting teen went off on another political (to him) topic: vegetarianism (because the politician he hates hunts and eats meat) and he began bashing anyone who ate meat. (How hunting and eating the meat is somehow worse than factory farming of animals with its methods that some feel are unethical is something I don't quite understand, wouldn't hunting rate one up from factory farming? Sorry, I digress.) We'd not yet taught my son about how to deal with people who want to bash meat-eaters (for the record we eat meat in our household), I guess that's another topic to teach our son about.

For the first time it occurred to me that some homeschool families are teaching their kids to push an agenda and to pop out names and use smear campaigns rather than to a) teach their children tolerance for difference of opinion, b) have respectful discussion, c) discuss the issues. This lesson could be learned by observation of the media the family watches or the teen watches on their own or from hearing the parents talk or by direct teaching.

I don't know what that family does in their home, the point I'm making is our children are learning all the time and sometimes what they learn from their families or the media is not taught directly by the parent or contained in a curriculum's lesson plan. As parents we should think about this issue and ponder what our children may be learning from what they see in our home.

In our home we discuss our views and why we believe in them. We also teach tolerance and that discussion of the actual issue itself should be done not just shallow talk or using smear campaign tactics.

If we let our children watch those cable news shows what are they learning? If we let them see it and don't discuss our family's values what migh they learn? A simple discussion could be, "Do you think it is good to insult the person by saying ___ instead of actually answering the question about the issue?" Also, "Did you see how the person didn't answer the question but instead discussed a topic they wanted to discuss, something they wanted us to hear?"

Another issue with letting the kids watch debate shows on TV is it can paint a 'doom and gloom' picture of the USA and our future. I feel we need to be careful about that. My kids sometimes overhear these programs when my husband watches them. (For the first ten years of my older son's life I banned all TV and radio news when my son was awake as I was trying to protect him from the various scary and negative things on the news. After that I succumbed and now we talk about things they overhear from either news shows or lectures on BookTV.)

As an example of how kids worry, after overhearing parts of an author lecture on BookTV about debt owed to China, my husband and I had to discuss national debt and how we borrow money from China to use to do the things we do, when weeks later while shopping at the grocery store suddenly my then-nine year old asked me if the USA was going to end in two or three years due to having too much debt to China? He asked if we would we be taken over by China and lose our independence? This was after my son knew from overhearing on the news that President Obama chose to not televise his meeting with the Dali Lama after pressure by the Chinese government to not even meet with the Dali Lama at all (which at that time instigated a short discussion on why President Obama might change his plans based on pressure from another country's government.) My son was taking this way more seriously than I'd like any nine year old to do yet his question was a logical one. I share this as an example of how a nine year old can take a real life current event and turn it into something that scares them about their near future, not to start a debate here. I also share this to show how a child of that age that most adults would think would never care about such a topic can worry and care about it.

7. We also should discuss etiquette with our kids and how to react if other kids ask them questions. When adults try to avoid discussing religion and politics at social events to try to keep the peace, why not teach our kids this same thing? Teaching a nine and twelve year old how to diffuse a heated argument may be asking a bit much but maybe it is never too young to start discussing some communication techniques?


Can you see how complicated something as simple as asking for ideas and materials to homeschool to teach about politics and current events during a Congressional election can become in real life?


Sarah said...

I found it interesting that you mentioned advertising and media exposure in a post about teaching kids about government and politics. It's a sideways approach to evaluating bias in current events and media reporting, but it's one I've found valuable, both for myself and for my children.

My parents never told me which political party (if any) they were registered with or how they voted. We had many lively debates over the dinner table about politics and current events, but to this day, I have no idea how my parents vote. I only know that they do, every single time there's an election. They felt very strongly that my sister and I should make up our own minds about politics and religion. But they did teach us, from a very early age, how to spot advertising, what advertising meant, and how to make purchasing decisions without being subconsciously influenced by things like word choice, color, item placement on the shelf, messages in popular TV shows, jingles on the radio, etc.

It wasn't a linear lesson, A > B. But my sister and I became quite savvy at a very early age about looking for bias in the information we were presented with. (This also turned into some pretty solid literary analysis skills...quite handy for the SATs and college!) We were given the opportunity to develop solid skills that would help us develop our own views on all sorts of topics -- to be our own persons, with informed opinions and open minds. I feel strongly enough about the value in this kind of approach that I've done the same with my children, starting in toddlerhood. I don't see them losing any innocence by knowing when they're being "played" -- if anything, this is a tool to protect their innocence, to allow them to be true to themselves.

Thanks for an interesting read on a subject we've been thinking about lately as our oldest has started asking some deep questions about how the world around her works.

christinemm said...

Thanks Sarah for your comments.

I think evaluating everything that comes our way uses the same thinking skills: a news report on TV or a TV ad, it's all biased information with an end-goal.

My parents were registered independent and they always told us because they wanted to feel untied to one party, free to make up their own mind. Honestly we didn't have deep conversations (sadly).

I can't see how discussion of the issues with values between child and parent without some bias coming through. We are honest with our kids on our opinions which includes sharing the actual opinion. I do want my kids to think for themselves and not be parrots (something I failed to say in that blog post but something I've said numerous times in past blog posts).

It is easy to realize which end of a spectrum is affiliated as either conservative or liberal views. This has come up for us in past discussions on the news when people were not happy that a Republican held a view that was considered a liberal view or vice-versa. In our home this has been overheard in relation to a politician's view on abortion.

Politics and government is not a topic that can be taught quickly, neatly, or cleaning with a lesson plan. This is years of discussion as things come up in real life, I feel. Not all of it can be pre-planned nor should it. This is definately not a purely linear topic to teach, I agree with you on that.

Pamela said...

That's too bad your son was attacked- poor kid.
We have friends and family members that range from ultra liberal to ultra conservative, and as soon as my kids started asking questions about politics, I've tried to give them honest answers that respect the opinions of other people- even if I don't agree with the opinion. We don't do a lot of media, but it's hard not to see campaigning, so that brings up a lot of discussion.
In the last election, my daughter was shocked when she saw a political sign for a measure she thought was awful in the front yard of a friends house. It was a good chance to talk about friends respecting one anothers' differences, and seeing both sides of an issue. There are so many issues in which different families do things differently, so it goes along the same lines. Avoiding the negativity is a fine line, but learning to see how powerful and misleading marketing messages can be is definitely an important life skill.

Mako said...

I plan on tackling Government and Politics in our homeschool soon. I plan to use sources from and some of the authors who contribute to it regularly. They are all (as far as I can tell)proponents of homeschooling and many of their views reflect why I started homescholling to begin with. I think it would be more than worth your while to follow the site for a couple of weeks and see what you can find.
Troy Brooks

Marlis said...

A thought provoking post. Thank you. I am currently grappling with the tast of choosing a new curriculum for my 5th grader. While I had a fairly easy time choosing the science and math material I still struggle with Civics/Government and History. American history that is. We have been studying ancient world history for a year now. While I used resources like Howard Zinn, The Story of US on History Channel etc I need some good books that don't try to gloss over and manipulate history.

Any suggestions?