It’s election season: Should mentors talk politics with their mentees?

Linus: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

Do you think it is appropriate for mentors and mentees to discuss politics? With recent conventions and the open tensions of a particularly acrimonious U.S. election, politics are everywhere. How should a mentor approach conversations about politics when/if a mentee raises the topic?  Is there a particular age when such discussions might be more or less appropriate? These experts weigh in.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 8.22.32 PMConnie Flanagan is Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is the author of many studies on youth civic engagement and of the wonderful book, Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young (Harvard University Press). See her interview in recent Boston Globe 

It is very appropriate for mentors and mentees to discuss politics. And not just every four years.  National elections are moments in history when political issues and the direction we want the country to go are on the minds of most Americans.  But it is everyday, not every four years, that young people crave discussions of meaningful topics – and politics is one of them. In the past twenty years I have asked youth as young as 9 and as old as 20 and from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds to share their thoughts about political topics – such as what democracy means to them, how they feel about immigration, or why inequality exists. No matter what the topic, those youth who discuss current events and politics with adults know more about and can discuss the issue from different perspectives. This is important because people who see issues from different perspectives tend to be more open-minded, tolerant, and less extreme in their positions.

If a mentee raises a political issue, the mentor should ask the young person what his/her opinion is on the issue and why. This helps the youth to clarify where s/he stands, what s/he understands about the topic or might still need to learn. Listening to the mentee’s views also sends a message that his/her opinions are worthy of respect, that adults should pay attention and take those ideas seriously.

Mentors should share their point of view as well. Regardless of whether they agree or disagree, as long as the exchange is respectful, political discussion is a way to deepen understanding. When mentors discuss political issues with their mentees, they can show that disagreements don’t have to divide us and that politics doesn’t have to be bitter. Citizens can work together, despite our differences. But listening and compromise take practice and politics often engages our passions. If we want the younger generation to be informed and to vote when they’re old enough, we should engage with them in civil discussions of politics and current events when they are young.

Democracy is not the business of government.  Democracy is the power of people to author their lives, to decide together what kind of society they want to live in. And young people should have a voice in that discussion.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 8.23.12 PMJoseph Polman is Professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is interested in inquiry-based learning involving computers and the Internet as tools, viewed from a sociocultural perspective. His book Designing Project-based Science: Connecting Learners through Guided Inquiry, has been published by Teachers College Press. He has worked with children and teachers in school and non-school settings such as after school clubs, on projects involving disciplines including science, history, and foreign literature.

Mentors should be willing to discuss politics with their mentees

I believe mentors should be willing to discuss politics with their mentees, and that such conversations can have positive effects. A mentor should of course be careful to honor and respect that the parents or guardians of mentees may have political views which differ from their own, but this need not prevent productive and powerful discussions. Discussions between mentors and mentees can contribute to the cultivation of children as educated citizens, and as Jefferson said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

For instance, mentors can help young people understand how people with different perspectives take different positions on important issues. Very young children can both identify with and understand at a fundamental level similarities between debates that presidential candidates have and disagreements they themselves might have on the playground.

In work with young people investigating disputed historical events in the course of developing short historical documentaries and web pages, my colleagues and I have found that middle school and high school students can understand that different people can reach honest disagreements about what the “true story” is. This is an important prerequisite to understanding how different world views and “selecting preferred facts” leads to the kind of “spin” we see every day in U. S. politics. and participate thoughtfully and respectfully in debates about politics themselves. Students who have the experience of participating in civil and respectful debates according to their own ideas lay the groundwork for participating more productively in our democracy than many adults today. Therefore, I encourage mentors to model civil discourse about politics in discussions with your mentees. And if you have any branches of initiatives like Kids Voting USA in your area, consider encouraging your mentees to check them out.