How to Keep Politics Out of the Playground

by Emma Seppala, PH.d

No matter what our political affiliation, our children are entering a deeply divided society and the results are already being seen in schools across the country. Children’s brains are programmed to absorb information, learning and modeling the behavior they see in others—especially the adults around them. But, at a contentious time like today, the result is that politics enter the playground—sometimes creating hurtful environments. The values endorsed by parents get reflected in children’s friendships and conversations, creating school environments that no longer feel safe. No matter what political candidate you endorse, as a parent, your primary wish is that your child feel safe. Here are some ways that parents can help foster safe environments for their children:

  1. Affiliate with values not parties

Reminding your children about the values you as a family endorse (rather than political party or candidate) is important. By teaching them that kindness or equality are important, they start to see and think beyond a particular person or party. Discuss values with your children, create a conversation around what values are most important to your family. Build a poster in your house that explains the common human values that direct your household and the way in which you wish to treat others. Some examples are respect, integrity, health, compassion, and listening.

  1. Turn kids into skillful conversationalists, not antagonists

As difficult as it may be to accept other peoples’ point of view, the truth of the matter is that your children will confront different points of view throughout their life. Rather than teaching them to pass judgment, this is a time when parents can teach their children the power of debate. Having a conversation in which you ask “What are your arguments for or against this policy or idea?” but also questions like “What would your opponents strongest arguments be?” can help your child begin to think for themselves and also to see from another person’s perspective. You can also have them join a debate club in school. Most importantly, by understanding that everyone has a different opinion, your child will realize that his or her identity and value does not depend on another person’s opinion.

The result is a child who understands that opinions are as numerous as there are people, but also a child who thinks critically and can enter into conversation with people of different opinions not as an antagonist but as an engaged and thoughtful conversationalist. What’s more, your child will gain confidence from this newfound skill of expressing an opinion and defending it logically.

  1. Hone their critical thinking, not their judgment

We know from research that our emotions impact how we see things, how we process the world and what we remember. As a consequences, our views can be skewed. One of the most difficult things to recognize is that we all make mistakes. You do, I do. We all sometimes fail to see things from an accurate perspective. We were in a bad mood or didn’t have all the information and BOOM—we passed a judgement on something we weren’t truly seeing for what it was. But of course, even more challenging is to admit that we made a mistake. But it is critical to teach your child that everyone makes mistakes and to remain curious and open to others’ points of views. By being vulnerable with them and acknowledging that you sometimes don’t always see the full picture, you invite them to think for themselves, to question their own judgement but also to be inquisitive and curious about why others think the way they do. In doing so, you are actually honing their own critical thinking skills and making them aware of how emotions, environments etc. impact our perspective.

Although it may feel challenging to do so, teach your kids to be open to others’ points of views—if only to ensure that they have all the facts right and that their own point of view stands on solid ground. Oftentimes things aren’t as black and white as they appear, but more a shade of gray.

  1. Teach them Emotion Regulation Techniques

Whether we like it or not, our children will encounter difficult situations at some point or another. Whether we like it or not, most people at some point or another suffer rejection and, sadly, discrimination for gender, race, sexual orientation or simply cruel gossip. They will get emotional in response to personal events and world events. The best thing we can do them is to teach them emotion regulation early so that they are equipped with tools and techniques to handle these emotions with skill. Research conducted by my colleague Dara Gharemani at UCLA Medical School shows that breathing and meditation programs like YES! for schools can be very helpful in calming impulsivity. Yoga, breathing and meditation practices can help your child take a step back from a situation, reflect from a place of greater calmness, and respond more constructively. Rather than responding out of an emotional upset, your child can learn to respond from a place of perspective and thoughtfulness, leading to far more productive results.  Their courage will stem from valor and inner strength, not fear or anger. As a result, they will be powerful and they will be more likely to be heard.

By responding in a more centered and calm way, you are giving your children tools for life. We may not agree with other people’s views, but the best way we can advocate for our own views is not through anger at the “other side” but by living by example. As Maya Angelou so beautifully said: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” By teaching our kids to approach others with openness and respect rather than anger and frustration or judgement, we are helping our kids to be those kind of people that others will turn to for their opinion. We are, in fact, turning them into influencers and leaders in their own right.

  1. Regulate your own emotions

Sometimes we focus so much on our children we forget the immense role we play. Yet perhaps more important than any intervention with your child is to take care of the state of your own mind. When you are upset, your child will be the first to feel it. If you are angry or sad, your child will be as well—and will take it into the playground, possibly getting her or himself into unnecessary pain and trouble. In order to foster a home that is most conductive to psychological and physical health and to positive relationships, you need to take care of your own state of mind. Here again, techniques like breathing, yoga and meditation can be very simple and effective ways to regain your inner balance (try this one). Similarly, walks in nature, exercise and time outside have been shown to do wonders for mental health. By taking care of yourself, you are doing the best thing for your child and creating an environment where your child can thrive, bringing his or her best, strongest, most courageous and wisest self into the playground—and the rest of her life

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and is the author of The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2016). She is also Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Huf ngton Post, and Scienti c American Mind. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Ful llment Daily, a popular news site dedicated to the science of happiness.

Her work and research have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, VOGUE, ELLE, CBSNews, Oprah Magazine, Fast Company, U.S. World and News Report, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Inc, Huf ngton Post, ABC News, Business Insider, SELF, GLAMOUR. She has appeared several times on Good Morning America. She was also interviewed for Huf ngton Post Live and TIME/MONEY and is featured in the documentary lm The Altruism Revolution. She is the recipient of a number of research grants and service awards including the James W. Lyons Award from Stanford University for founding Stanford’s rst academic class on the psychology of happiness and teaching many well-being programs for Stanford students. She graduated from Yale (BA), Columbia (MA), and Stanford (PhD). Originally from Paris, France, she is a native speaker of French, English, and German.