As the 2020 election cycle draws to a close, we are seeing more and more young people engaging in politics both on and offline. In this piece, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Volunteer Isabela Rocha consults with activists and experts to give parents resources and advice on how to have productive political discussions with their teens.
Ambika Muralitharan, a high school student and teen activist, first started paying attention to politics when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage on 2015. She said her gay friends’ happiness at the time and the national impact of the decision made her want to understand how the American legal system worked.
“Gay marriage was legalized and I had a lot of friends that were gay and they were obviously happy about it, so for me it was like, ‘Hmm, how does that processing go about?,’” Muralitharan said.
Muralitharan is now part of Asian Teen Activists, a group of approximately 25 students around North America that work to empower the world’s Asian community on social media. She said her parents were always accepting of her interest in politics, encouraging her to say what she believed in and educate others about it.
But not all American households are like this. In 2019, about 24% of Americans discussed politics around friends and family, and about 12% of young adults – aged 18 to 34 – discussed politics at all, according to a 2019 poll by Gallup.
Things have shifted a bit this year, and now 70% of young adults – aged 18 to 29 – say they have discussed politics with their friends, and almost 80% of them say the pandemic has helped them realize the importance of government decisions, according to a 2020 poll by Gallup.
With this increase in political engagement, what should you do if your teenager brings up politics at the dinner table?
It is important to teach teenagers about politics so they can understand their agency to speak for their rights and for others’ rights, and it is both teachers and parents’ responsibility to do so, according to Rob Martinelle, a lecturer at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. “When it comes to civic engagement, it can’t be just the school’s responsibility to cultivate civic participation,” Martinelle said. “We need help.”
Kaylene Stevens, a lecturer and social studies program director at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, has a few tips for you:
- Encourage your teen’s initiative to talk about politics, directing the conversation to topics they are interested in. Are they interested in women’s rights? Are they concerned about COVID? Are they concerned about the environment?
- Teach media literacy by showing your teen how to find reliable sources and how to gather information from multiple sources (our MEDIAGIRLS blog has an article about media literacy in case you want to learn more about this subject!).
- Discuss kind, thoughtful, and safe ways of talking about politics, explaining to your teen that politics can be triggering and polarizing, and that the ways in which politicians say things isn’t always the model to follow.
- Explain the systems of racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity that are embedded in the political culture by showing, for example, how most U.S. leaders are white men.
- Teach teens to focus on the issues that they care about as future voters rather than on politicians themselves.
- Encourage your teenager to think independently regardless of your personal beliefs, allowing them to make their own informed decisions.
Our MEDIAGIRLS team and the consulted specialists for this article also suggested resources that you and your teen can consult when discussing politics:
- Crash Course, an educational YouTube channel, has many free video lessons about the U.S. government and how it works.
- Common Sense Media, a non profit that focuses on safe media and technological education, offers a free Young Voters Guide to Social Media and the News with videos, tips, and readings for parents, teachers, and teens.
- FiveThirtyEight, a politics-focused website by ABC News, has multiple articles, infographics, podcasts, and videos about U.S. politics and this year’s elections.
- TED-Ed, an educational initiative by TED Conferences LLC, has free civic video lessons for parents, students, and teachers.
- Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers articles, workshops, and classroom resources for teaching both middle school and high school students about politics and civic engagement.
- Facing History and Ourselves, a charity with staff members around the world, offers readings, lessons, and professional development opportunities for teaching critical thinking about civic engagement.
As a teen activist, Muralitharan’s advice to parents who are reluctant to discuss politics with their children or don’t know where to start is simple: listen.
“Listen to what your child has to say about certain issues, and tell them how you’re feeling in return,” wrote Muralitharan in a text interview. “Even though you might disagree with your child, knowing their opinion is so important, and do not hesitate to have the difficult conversations.”
Isabela Rocha is a Brazilian Journalism and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies student at Boston University. Her favorite book in this world is The Hunger Games and her favorite snack food is M&Ms. A 5-foot woman determined to change the world, Isa believes that women have the power to build a gender-equitable media, so she decided to take up that challenge by joining MEDIAGIRLS in the Fall of 2019.