OPINION | We shouldn't be exposing little kids to politics. This is why.
When dealing with six-year-olds, you never quite know what you’re going to get.
For the last year and a half, I have been volunteering at an elementary school, tutoring first-grade students. As I sat with one particular first-grader, struggling to draw his attention back to the reading comprehension packet we had been trying to start for the last ten minutes, his mind wandered to and from every picture, chart and construction paper cutout on the classroom walls as he desperately tried to distract me from the dreaded task in front of him.
In one last stubborn attempt, he pointed to pictures of two former U.S. presidents in the window sill.
“That’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,” he said matter-of-factly.
I was still determined to complete at least one page from the stack of worksheets.
“That’s right, very good! Now, let’s focus so I can help one of the other kids too, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, adding after a few moments: “Why are they against each other?”
This got my attention. I asked what he meant.
“That one is wearing red, and the other one is wearing blue,” he explained. “Why are they against each other?”
At this, my face fell a little.
Just a couple weeks prior, this group of kids had been sitting around a table together eating their snacks before tutoring began, giggling about some of the children being black, some white, and some Hispanic—completely oblivious to the fact that for too long race has been grounds for prejudice, violence and oppression to run rampant in our country. These first-graders, however, did not see race as social barriers. They were peculiar nuances that they could laugh about together.
These kids were still unacquainted with discrimination towards the different. Race, gender, economic status, political party—these realities were of no concern in the minds of these children, though they may have noticed them. But in the simple question of why the red is against the blue, I witnessed those social barriers begin to form in the innocent mind of a six-year-old.
First-graders may not be able to grasp the complexity of social injustice or the purpose of a protest for political reform, but they do understand emotion. A study published by the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development reveals that certain social skills appear as early as infancy, developing into more contemplative social understanding in toddler years. As toddlers are limited in their cognitive abilities, this understanding must come in a familiar form—namely, emotion.
These skills continue to develop as children move into elementary school, increasing their emotional intelligence. To explain the process of a child’s understanding, a Scholastic article about child empathy poses this question:
“Have you ever noticed how children watch your face as you talk to them? They seem to be scanning you for a hint to the feelings behind your words.”
Young children do not as much hear people talk as watch them talk. Understanding the feeling and intent behind the language plays a key role in social cognition. It seems, then, that children may catch on to more than we think—if not by intellect, then by emotion.
It is a little ironic that my young student assumed from color associations that George Washington stood in opposition to Abraham Lincoln, a man who famously spoke about a house divided. He clearly did not understand the concept of political parties or else he would have known that Republicans and Democrats are two parts of a whole—or at least they’re supposed to be.
Despite my first-grade friend’s inability to understand the political rhetoric of those subscribed to red or blue, he read the emotion. He revealed the upset condition of our house divided.
These young kids comprise the newest generation—a generation young enough to be learning still how to think, not what to think. They are living their most formative years in an age when we are so desperate for justice and change, amidst women’s marches and gun control rallies, increased regulations and mass shootings, international distress and immigration policy. But how much of politics did you understand as a six-year-old?
In all the chaos, children see their mother’s tears and their father’s sullen faces. They see their sister’s fear and their brother’s confusion. They see frightened grown-ups who were supposed to be invincible. They see their best friend moving far, far away. And all the while, passionate outcries and aggravated chants are pouring through the windows from the streets outside their house. Conflict. Opposition. Division. Frustration. Never a moment of unified silence as they march along for a justified cause that a child does not understand.
Children are born into this hostile environment, with overbearing opinions demanding conformity and harsh criticisms constricting imagination—pressures that come crashing into these kids in an emotive form intuitively understood from a very young age. As adults, we zero in on the perpetrators of every offense, big or small, forgetting to look out for those looking up at us.
There is a time for impassioned rebuke and demand of reformation. But in our quest for justice, we must proceed with caution. We have become all too comfortable with argumentation. We stand by, guns loaded with entitled opinions, until our lives are cluttered with the clanging of shortsighted dispute.
We look for any outlet to expel our charged rants for instantaneous relief, assuming this is a victimless act of release. Then we rage because we feel like our voices remain unheard—but we are heard. We’re heard in the jumbled mess of emotion that rings in the ears of a child.
Little children are watching, and they are very good imitators.
Instead of demanding punishment for those we disagree with, vowing to be at peace when at last we feel vindicated, we should be the ones exemplifying the goodness we wish to find in our culture. Our legacy is being inscribed in the minds of children with every passing moment. These young kids are blank slates. They are mirrors of our actions.
So maybe what we need is not a megaphone. Maybe we need silence. Maybe, if we cut out the uncensored outbursts of everyday frustrations, we could make room for the red and blue to work together for the sake of these kids. Maybe then we could begin to heal our house divided.