Helping youngsters think about elections

The following column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during November, 2023


Helping youngsters think about elections


Here’s a confession: I was very disappointed in the results of a recent city council election in our town. Over 50 years of living in Minnesota, our family, like many others, has experienced an array of reactions to elections, such as those held earlier this month. They’ve ranged from delight to disgust, and in some cases indifference. Whether the issues are local, statewide or national, we adults sometimes have very strong feelings.

Youngsters are listening. So how do we talk with young people about election results?

First, we can offer perspective. We can help youngsters understand that in some countries, elections are not held. In some countries, results lead to riots. Not here — with the exception of what happened in Washington, D.C., after the last presidential election. We have a tradition, going back to the 1800s, of a peaceful transition from one set of elected officials to another.

Second, we can remind youngsters that sometimes people who lose one election come back to win another. Two examples come to mind immediately: the late U.S. President Richard Nixon and the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Both suffered significant losses, and both came back to win.

This also is true for local school district referendums. Sometimes after voters reject a proposal, a district holds more meetings, revises its request and wins voter support.

A third lesson for youngsters involves the value of getting news from more than one source. A variety of school board candidates ran in several Twin Cities suburbs, some backed by Education Minnesota (the statewide educators union), and some supported by the Minnesota Parents Alliance. Recognizing that many people skim headlines, I saw three somewhat different headlines describing the results. The stories contained similar facts.

Alpha News, which supported the Minnesota Parent Alliance candidates, used this headline: “Two newcomers in Anoka-Hennepin defeat DFL-allied, Education-Minnesota backed candidates”. Their story also included information about school board elections in Bloomington, Hastings, Minnetonka, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan (ISD 196), Stillwater, South Washington County and Wayzata. MPA candidates ran in each of these communities.

A Minnesota Public Radio story used this headline: “Minnesota voters backed school funding, union-endorsed candidates at the polls” (The article told a more complex story, including the fact that 10 of the 44 MPA endorsed candidates won while the vast majority of Education Minnesota candidates were elected.

The Pioneer Press had what probably was the most comprehensive headline of the three I read: “Parental rights group scores victories but falls short in a number of metro school board races v. union-endorsed candidates.”

One other report, from the PBS NewsHour, included an interview with a University of Southern California professor who cited Minnesota and insisted that the “Parents Rights” movement is a “distraction” from important issues. While I disagree with at least some of what “Parents Rights” advocates request, it seems entirely appropriate for these families to have opportunities to share concerns and suggestions. Shouldn’t PBS have given them a chance to respond?

Finally, sometimes elections have historic results. As the Sun Sailor reported, St. Louis Park apparently became the first U.S. community where voters elected a Somali-American as mayor.

Regardless of how we feel about election results, they are worth discussing with youngsters.

The American Psychological Association offers some helpful advice, beginning with this: (Children) “may need your guidance to effectively manage their emotions, cope with friends who think differently than they do, and respond to comments they disagree with or find upsetting. You can help by listening to them, modeling thoughtful and respectful behavior, and providing them with lots of love and security.” More suggestions are online here.

Elections can be stressful. They can produce results that encourage or discourage, and sometimes both. But families can help youngsters view elections as a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, but overall very valuable part of America.


Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: