17 Tips to Steer Kids of All Ages Through the Political Season

Help your kids tune out the noise and tune into age-appropriate resources for political news. By Regan McMahon

Today, when the latest campaign trail gaffe, political scandal, or candidate counterattack goes viral, your kids may hear about it before you do. How will they know whether a claim or a charge is based in fact, an unsubstantiated smear, or typical campaign overstatement?

Today’s kids get their news from a variety of sources, from TV to Twitter. In fact, social media is teens’ primary news source. According to a study by the University of Chicago, nearly half of young people age 15 to 25 get news at least once a week from family and friends via Twitter or Facebook. And it can be difficult to tell fact from fiction. The presidential candidates now use Twitter to spin their messages and slam their opponents. One of the study’s conclusions is: “Youth must learn how to judge the credibility of online information and how to find divergent views on varied issues.”

The media plays a huge role in our country’s political process. And with the 24/7 news cycle, those effects are magnified. On the plus side, there are plenty of age-appropriate resources at your fingertips, some of which we’ve listed below. Here’s how you can help your kids become media-savvy participants in democracy.

Elementary School Kids

Decode ads. When a political ad comes on TV or is striped across or down the side of a computer screen, talk to your kid about the claims the ad is making and how music and visuals are used to persuade viewers. Talk about why there are so many negative ads — and why they work.

Watch out for campaign-inspired bullying. Kids exposed to candidates’ mudslinging and name-calling on TV, on radio, and in video clips online may parrot this talk and engage in bullying behavior at school or home. Explain that politicians do this to gain an advantage over their opponent or change the conversation. Explain that name-calling and bullying isn’t appropriate at home, at school, or on the playground. Teach kids how to respectfully disagree.

Seek out kid-friendly news. Turn to news sources designed for kids, such as HTE Kids NewsTime for Kids, and Scholastic Kids Press Corps. These news websites break down the events of the day in age-appropriate terms, while avoiding stuff you probably won’t want them exposed to.

Read kid-friendly books about American politics. Check out Bad Kitty for President, which does a great job of explaining the U.S. political system. See how hard women fought for voting rights inAround America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles. And find out what the founding fathers were really like in The Founding Fathers: Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America.

Keep the bombast at bay. Kids may not understand concepts such as groping, gun control, abortion, troops, and immigration, but they can certainly feel the emotion behind the rhetoric. Try to change the station and mute the TV when you can. Kids will pick up on your reactions — and they sometimes feel at fault for causing them — so if a candidate makes you mad, explain that the man or woman on TV made you feel that way and why.

Middle School Kids

Talk about political advertising. How is a political ad like a regular commercial for a product? Is it selling a candidate just like another sells cereal? Who paid for the ad you’re watching? Can political ads actually influence the outcome of an election? Watch political movies to see how fictional political strategies mirror real-life ones.

Share political cartoons. Mocking the candidates is a long-cherished tradition Americans can enjoy in the name of free speech. Poking fun of politicians takes some bite out of their often harsh statements, shows kids that challenging bold claims is part of our political process, and offers a sense of relief when the campaign rhetoric heats up.

Tackle the tough topics. With campaign rhetoric getting nastier, you may have to explain to your kids certain terms and situations you never thought you’d have to when they’re this age. Explain how candidates may bring up some things as a distraction or to get attention. Steer the conversation back to the important issues in the election. Ask your kids to identify two specific positions for each candidate to keep them focused on the real issues.

Ask how elections really work. Draw a link between your kids’ experience of student body elections or mock presidential elections at school and those on the state and national levels. Are elections just a popularity contest, or does someone win because he or she has the best ideas?

De-fang hate speech and fear-mongering. When candidates unleash extreme, zealous statements, they can stir up scary emotions (worry, confusion, fear, anxiety) in tweens. Explain that candidates intentionally try to appeal to people’s emotions to gain an advantage over their rivals and that some candidates will resort to insulting, bullying, and even lying. Tell your kids that much of what the candidates say simply isn’t true. See if you can get your kids to pick out the kinds of statements that are attention-getting vs. meaningful comments about what policies the candidates would institute if elected.

High School Kids

Address campaign rhetoric head-on. Discuss campaign issues that become national news — even if they’re hard to stomach. Kids will be riveted to any election news that’s outrageous. Ask your kids open-ended questions about what they’ve heard, what they think about what they’ve heard, and why the candidates’ talking points and media coverage veer so far from the “real” issues voters care about.

Watch news and debates together. Compare the media coverage on different shows and networks. Do reporters, news anchors, and opinion shows spend too much time on distractions that heat up the 24-hour cable news cycle rather than on the real issues facing our country? Check the credibility of candidates’ claims at the nonpartisan site FactCheck.org.

Talk about the influence of polls. A lot of what drives momentum in campaigns are the latest poll results, reported on news shows and websites. Your family may be getting calls at home from pollsters or one of the campaigns asking whom you’ll vote for. How might polls influence people? Are polls accurate predictors of election-day results? Send teens to Reddit, where they can share, rank, and discuss the news.

Discuss the role of social media in elections. Do your teens follow any politicians on Twitter or other feeds? What kinds of posts earn your teen’s respect, and what kinds erode it? Is it risky to talk politics with friends online if you disagree?

Remind them not to believe everything they read. Encourage them to get out from behind their computers with Rock the Vote, which uses music and pop culture to engage teens.

Talk about fear and hate-mongering among politicians — and how mudslinging is nothing new. Sometimes its helpful to discuss the historical context of election politics. Teens are old enough to understand that extreme positions and outrageous comments attract attention — and sometimes that’s all politicians want. Talk about the grand old tradition of mudslinging in campaigns. Why do candidates make offensive statements, and what impact do zealous positions have on voters and the political process? Do you pay more attention when a candidate is making outrageous statements or discussing actual policy? How much of what a candidate says is designed to appeal to voters’ emotions?

Reinforce your family values. Make sure you slip in some of your own families’ values when you discuss the issues, because as we all know, the campaign season coverage can introduce lots of issues that tweens and teens will question.

Senior parenting editor Caroline Knorr contributed to this article.

About Regan McMahon

Regan has been reviewing children’s books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page… Read more

If You Want Your Teenage Kids to Eat Healthy, Try Reverse Psychology


By Ruth Graham

When junk foods like cafeteria fries and chicken nuggets are a tool of the man, teens are less likely to choose them.

Jana Birchum/Getty Images

The problem with many public-service campaigns aimed at young people is that they are based on lies. Not all users are losers, and drug dealers do not tend to be dorks. Driving fast is actually very fun. And smoking is not lame; in fact, it is cool.

That’s why a new study on nutrition messaging for teenagers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is so exciting. In the study of more than 500 13- and 14-year-olds in Texas, researchers framed healthy eating not as something objectively hip—don’t even try, olds—but as a rebellion against manipulative junk-food corporations. As it turns out, appealing to teen appetites for independence and social justice actually works.

The researchers note that many previous health interventions have focused on the long-term future benefits of healthy eating. Don’t smoke, because in a few decades your skin will look awful. Eat healthy, because over time you’ll keep your weight down. Those messages aren’t incorrect, of course, but they’re no match for the immediate appeal of a cigarette or a delicious Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch Supreme.

The new study tried something much savvier. The researchers, headed by Christopher Bryan of the University of Chicago and David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, started with an entire eighth-grade class at a suburban Texas middle school. They randomly assigned some of the teenagers to receive a typical public-health pitch on nutrition, while others received no intervention at all. A third group got the new pitch. They read an exposé-style article on how the food industry uses lies and manipulation to make their products addictive. They saw pictures of several industry executives and consultants, who were described as “controlling, hypocritical adult[s].” And they read about how these companies target both children and poor people.

Just like that, eating fresh, unprocessed food becomes an act of rebellion. Health-conscious eaters become not calorie-counting kill-joys, but warriors in a noble, anti-corporate cause. Spurning a Creamy Mayo Double Cheeseburger is not just a boring act of self-control, but a middle finger to the man. Presented with snack choices days later in an unrelated context, teenagers exposed to the intervention chose healthier snacks than their peers. They were also angrier when they saw ads for sugary drinks, and less tempted to drink them.

Compare that to another recent nutrition program aimed at teenagers: “Get Fruved,” a $4.9 million project that “uses peer interaction, social media and campus events to try to get high school and college students to eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise more and manage stress more effectively.” Oh, and “get fruved” means “get your fruits and vegetables,” which is a cool thing that cool teens say when they are hanging out together and getting fruved. “Get Fruved” is the “Users Are Losers” of nutrition campaigns.

The new study, by contrast, suggests an approach similar to Truth, a national anti-smoking campaign that launched in the late 1990s. Instead of trying to convince teenagers that smoking is unglamorous or unhealthy, the campaign emphasized the fact that lame adults want you to smoke. In one spot, young protesters pile body bags outside an unnamed tobacco company’s corporate headquarters, in a representation of how many people tobacco kills every day. One protester shouts through a megaphone at suit-wearing executives peering out of windows. If a new approach to nutrition messaging could make a Big Tobacco-esque villain out of “Big Food,” it would be a huge victory for public health. And it would have the convenient advantage of being true.

Never Do For Kids What They Can Do For Themselves…


An interesting article by Jessica Lahey that supports one of my favorite parenting statements: “Never do for kids what they can do for themselves, and never do for kids what they can almost do for themselves.”
I lifted this picture from King Arthur’s website, because while I had my iPhone,
I hardly thought taking a shot of the mom buttering the toast was appropriate.

There I was, sitting at a table in King Arthur Flour’s lovely new cafe, waiting for a meeting with a Head of School who is visiting from out of town, and I caught something going on at the table next to me. A family – mom, dad, teenage daughter – were enjoying a lovely breakfast together. That’s nice, I thought.

My reverie was pierced by the rapid movement of the mom who yanked the plate away from her teenage daughter, asked for the daughter’s knife, and hastily unwrapped the neat little package of Cabot butter. I watched – I’d like to say in disbelief, but my reaction was more like disgust – as the mother buttered her thirteen or fourteen year-old’s toast.
I watched for a while. I watched out of the corner of my eye to make sure the daughter did not have a cast I was missing on her arm or some other obvious disability that would have interfered with her ability to butter her toast. Nope. Not from my perspective, at least, nothing obvious to report. [As some commenters have mentioned below – at least the ones who refrained from swearing at me – have correctly pointed out that I can’t assess neurotypicality from ten feet away. This is absolutely true. Her inability to butter her toast could have stemmed from any number of issues. However, I sat next to them for a full hour, and as far as I could tell from my seat, there were no waving neuro-atypical red flags. But thanks for the obscenities and one particularly vivid description regarding where to put my own head.]
The daughter watched her mother frantically buttering, buttering, with what appeared to be a little bit of impatience and maybe even irritation. Ah, yes. It was irritation. I know, because when she bit into the toast, she complained to her mother that it was “too crunchy” and to please get her another order of toast that’s “less crunchy.”
I wish I was making this up.
To her credit, the mother made her go get it, but when the daughter returned with her less crunchy toast, the mother got back down to work, buttering, buttering…
And I got back to work on my book.
My cursor blinked at the end of a sentence in the following paragraph, in a chapter on the research behind intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivation:

“The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles” writes Dweck. She calls these successful individuals “mastery-oriented,” and

There’s that “and,” just waiting. I honestly did not know where to go from there. Luckily, my colleague arrived and I was able to shut down Scrivenerbefore I finished with

“…and therefore, it’s vital that your child be allowed to butter their own toast, to experience that sense of mastery over their breakfast.”

NB: I edited one sentence above after receiving comments and added the stuff in brackets.

Dr. Otero’s Tips For Helping Children Cope with Anxiety

Dr. Melissa Otero Psy.D.

1) Remind your child that anxiety/worries are a normal experience. If there is a scary news story, it makes sense that they would be worried. Explain to your child that when we worry in this way, this is just our body trying to protect us. Anxiety helps to keep us alert and on the lookout for danger.

2) When we see our children worry, it is a natural to reassure them, i.e. “trust me, nothing will happen.”  While this may work for some time, it’s common to see worries persist even after having given them reassurance that they will be ok. Rather than providing reassurance in this way, try to empathize with them. Validate their worry. Let them know that it makes sense given the situation, i.e. “it makes sense that you might be worried about what might happen at school if you keep hearing stories about scary people dressed as clowns going to schools.” Then, help them think about ways that they can take care of themselves in the moment (see below!)

3) BREATHE! If you notice that your child is particularly anxious, try sitting silently with them and just breathe for a few minutes. Deep breathing in particular is effective at calming the nervous system. *Tip: Make sure that exhalations are 2-3 seconds longer than inhalations.

4) Help your child think about what they can do in the moment when they are feeling worried. It can be helpful to make this list ahead of time so that they can easily refer to it in moments when they might be more anxious. If a child states that they don’t know what can help them, a good place to start is by talking with them about what they love and building from there. Some ideas: physical activity (jumping jacks!), going for a walk, yoga, stretching, having a refreshing glass of water, meditation, writing, art, talking about their feelings, thinking of a funny memory.

5) Confront the “what-ifs.”  You may hear your child say something like, “…but what if a scary clown does come to school?” Do not dismiss their concern. Rather, sit with them and help them problem-solve. What will they do if the worst-case scenario does occur? Often times, once children know that there is a concrete plan in place, their anxiety reduces significantly.

6) Remind them that the worst-case scenario usually does not occur (but if it should, they have a plan). You may reinforce this by recalling examples of times when they thought something awful was going to happen and it didn’t. Remind them of times when they coped well with a situation.

7) Be aware of your own reactions. Anxiety is contagious. Your child takes her cues from you, so try your best to stay calm and model good problem-solving for them.

8) Limit the news and social media use. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the stories that make it to the news are negative, sad, violent, or scary. This can give children the false perception that most of what happens in the world is negative, sad, violent, or scary.

9) Make time each night to talk about good things that happened at school, at home, and in the world.

10) Be aware of what kind of media your child is watching. In particular, because Halloween is fast approaching, they may see more scary images, including clowns. Remind them that clowns are people dressed in a costume.

11) Let them know that you are taking care of them and keeping them safe. Similarly, let them know that school teachers and staff are taking care of them and keeping them safe. Remind them that Sacred Heart has security measures in place to ensure that only people who are supposed to be on campus are here.

12) Mr. Olson always tells students: “Never worry alone.”  We are here to support our students and encourage them to share how they feel, no matter how big or small the worry. Concerned students can speak with their teachers, Mr. Olson, Mrs. Weinman, or Dr. Otero.

Want to Raise Successful Daughters? Science Says Nag the Heck Out of Them

For tweens, eye-rolling and backtalk really means, ‘Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.’

Someday, my daughter is going to kill me for this one, but it’s a story that will vindicate parents everywhere.

Researchers in the United Kingdom say parents’ super-high expectations for their teenage daughters–especially if they remind them constantly of those expectations–are among the most important factors in predicting whether young girls will grow up to become successful women.

As a university press release put it: “Behind every successful woman is a nagging mom? Teenage girls more likely to succeed if they have pushy mothers.”

Nag more, fail less.

The researchers at the University of Essex found that girls whose “main parent”–that’s usually the mother–consistently displayed high parental expectations were far less likely to fall into the traps that made the girls less likely to succeed in life.

Specifically, these girls were:

  • Less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
  • More likely to attend college.
  • Less likely to get stuck in dead-end, low-wage jobs.
  • Less likely to have prolonged periods of unemployment.

The researchers, led by PhD candidate Ericka G. Rascon-Ramirez, studied the experiences of more than 15,000 British girls aged 13 and 14 over a 10-year period.

Of course, avoiding the prime pitfalls doesn’t necessarily mean that girls are destined to become the Sheryl Sandberg, Katie Ledecky, or Sara Blakeley of their time. But it does mean they’ll be more likely to preserve their opportunities to succeed later.

And that, dear parents, is the point at which your work is done–when your children’s success becomes much more a factor of their desire and work ethic than yours.

Rolling eyes? That means it’s working.

Nice study, some readers might reply. Have you actually tried being the parent tasked with nagging a 13- or 14-year-old daughter? News flash: Whether we’re talking about boys or girls, it could quickly deconstruct into a cacophony of eye rolls, door slams, and sullenness.

It’s not a lot of fun, I’m sure. (Regular readers will know that my daughter is only a year old, so I haven’t had the pleasure myself, yet. For more on how to raise successful kids, you can read my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Stanford Dean, a Navy SEAL Commander, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Dad.)

But parents can take solace in one idea the researchers entertained: The more it seems hectoring them is like pounding on a brick wall, the more it might be working.

“In many cases, we succee[d] in doing what we believ[e is] more convenient for us, even when this [is] against our parents’ will,” writes Rascon-Ramirez. “But no matter how hard we tried to avoid our parents’ recommendations, it is likely that they ended up influencing [our] choices.”

In other words, if your tween or teenage daughter rolls her eyes and says something like, “Arrrrggghhh, Mom, you’re so annoying,” what she really means, deep down in her subconscious mind is: “Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.”

Stacking the little voices.

There’s also some stacking going on, meaning if you set expectations in daughters’ heads that they should go to college AND they should not get pregnant as teenagers, they’re more likely to make it to age 20 without having a child than they would have been if you’d only pushed the “don’t have a baby until you’re old enough to be ready” message.

As my colleagues at Scary Mommy, where I first heard about the study, put it:

“Sure, having a healthy sense of self-esteem and believing that you have options is great, but not getting pregnant just because you ‘don’t want to hear it’ is fine with us, too. Whatever. Just make it not be so.”

I don’t know about you, but even as a man in my 40s, I sometimes hear my parents’ cautionary words–or even my grandparents’–when I go to do something I probably shouldn’t. My grandfather passed away in 1984, but if I ever overdo it on dessert, it’s his voice I hear calling me out for it.

And assuming this study holds value for boys as well–there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t–that means I have my parents’ habit of consistently expressing their high expectations to thank, at least in part, for my success.

So thanks for the nagging, Mom and Dad. And to my darling daughter, believe me, this will be harder on me than it is for you.

Teaching Teenagers to Cope With Social Stress


CreditJun Cen

Almost four million American teenagers have just started their freshman year of high school. Can they learn better ways to deal with all that stress and insecurity?

New research suggests they can. Though academic and social pressurescontinue to pile on in high school, teenagers can be taught effectivecoping skills to skirt the pitfalls of anxiety and depression.

David S. Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading voice in the growing effort to help college students stay in school, has been turning his attention to younger teenagers to help shore up their resilience at an earlier age.

His latest study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found a surprisingly effective technique. At the beginning of the school year, students participated in a reading and writing exercise intended to instill a basic, almost banal message to help them manage tension: People can change.

The students who completed the exercise subsequently had lower levels of stress, reported more confidence in coping and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, compared to a control group. These results were measured through the students’ self-reporting in online diaries and through cardiovascular and hormone measurements.

The studies are small. Some 60 students, recruited from the Rochester, N.Y., area, participated in the first trial; the second involved 205 ninth graders from a high school in suburban Austin, Tex. In 2017, researchers will try to reproduce these results on a larger scale, in some 25 high schools across the country.

Adults played no significant part in the exercise, researchers said. Students essentially taught themselves this mental buffer, and when they were inevitably rattled by social stress, they had a reassuring interpretation ready to frame it.

John R. Weisz, a psychology professor at Harvard who was not involved in the research, found the approach efficient and powerful. “If you’re an adolescent and you experience social harm, it’s not fixed that you will always be a target. You can change,” he said. “And over time, others can change, too. They may mellow and not be so cruel. That’s an interesting twist for kids to learn, and a good one.”
First, students read a short, engaging article about brain science, describing how personality can change. Then they read anecdotes written by seniors about high school conflicts, reflecting how they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on. Finally, the students themselves were asked to write encouraging advice to younger students.

Dr. Yeager and his colleagues have so far tried this intervention in five schools. In one study, 300 high school freshmen used this same method; nine months later, the prevalence of depression they reported was 40 percent less than in a control group.

If the results remain robust after the 2017 trials, Dr. Yeager plans to release the intervention material for free through a Stanford University project that provides learning support for students.

The breadth and depth of adolescent depression and anxiety is well established. A 2015 study found that nearly 11 percent of teenagers experience depression; other reports have even higher figures. Between sixth and 10th grade, the rate of depression doubles for boys and nearly triples for girls. And studies show that while a large percentage of teenagers face high stress on a daily basis, rates of coping skills are weak.

Dr. Yeager’s intervention suggests that if teenagers can hold onto a long view, they can soldier through immediate mortifications at the cafeteria lunch table. The takeaway: You are not doomed to be excluded forever. Neither your personality nor that of your tormentor’s is frozen.

The latest results from Dr. Yeager’s study are drawn from two related trials.

In the first, 60 students, ages 14 to 17, were assessed for baseline cardiovascular activity and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Then half the students received the following intervention:

First, they read the science article, which was chatty and informative and presented as new, insider information about how personality could evolve. Next, they read accounts by seniors which, in effect, proved the article’s thesis.

“When I was a freshman,” one wrote, “I felt left out when everyone got invited to one of my friend’s house and I didn’t. It’s like … they forgot about me. Or even worse that they thought about me but didn’t think I was cool enough to get invited.”

But, the writer continued, “No matter how much it hurt, it wasn’t going to last forever. … They might even realize how much pain they were causing others and decide to change.”

The student made friends outside of school, became involved in clubs and sports and, in time, “things definitely improved.”

After reading the science article and the older students’ narratives, the students in the study were asked to reflect on a time when they felt rejected. Then they were given a writing assignment: Looking back, what advice about change would you pass on to younger students?

Finally, both the intervention group and the control group were assigned stressful tasks: Give a five-minute speech about what factors make teenagers popular. Then, count backward, aloud, from 996 — by sevens.

Afterward, students who received the intervention showed half the cardiovascular reactivity of the control group. Their levels of cortisol dropped by 10 percent; they were coping. By contrast, the cortisol levels in the control group increased by 45 percent.

Dr. Yeager believes it helps that the teenagers learned coping skills in a lecture-free zone. “The more adults tell kids how to deal with their social life, the less kids want to do it that way,” he said.

“We’re asking kids to persuade other kids,” he added. “That feels respectful to them, and motivating. It’s a chance to matter. As these freshmen reflect on how they coped in middle school, the exercise forces them to put things in perspective.”

The second study compared 205 ninth graders in one school, half of whom received the intervention. All of them filled out a standardized online diary for a week, noting each day’s stressful events.

On days recorded as stressful, the intervention students showed a 10 percent decrease in cortisol and said they could manage the stresses. In contrast, the control group showed an 18 percent increase in cortisol on stressful days and said they “couldn’t handle” the stress.

At the end of the year, the intervention students had grades that were slightly higher than the control group’s.

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of adolescent psychology at Temple University, said there has been much discussion about what schools can do to bolster students’ social and emotional skills.

Research has shown, he said, that “if kids believed intelligence was fixed, they would believe nothing could be done. But if you could change their belief to think that intelligence was malleable and incremental, their academic performance would improve.”

Dr. Yeager, he added, has been applying this idea to personality.

“This intervention is not a self-esteem enhancer, which is a failed model,” Dr. Steinberg said. “But it does boost kids’ self-confidence by changing their belief in their own ability to change.”