Mrs. Fratarcangeli’s third-grade students sit and squirm at tables so short I have to sit on my knees to meet them at eye level. Barely a kid in the class, at a charter school in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, can stay silent or still. It doesn’t help that I’m an interloper, interrupting science-fair time to ask them about the topic of all topics — what they think about the presidential election, and New York’s own Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They’re eager pundits, and the question-and-answer session starts out smoothly enough: some ums, a shrug, and a dad who likes Trump.
Then, not even three kids in: “Wait, um, is Donald Trump a racist?”
Oh, shit, I think. I say, “I don’t know. That’s a hard question to answer.”
It’s been asked many, many, many times, just not often as bluntly as by a precocious 8-year old. I punted the question back to the teacher; what I thought was “ask your parents.” But that’s probably exactly where that idea — “Donald Trump is a racist” — got burrowed into this boy’s brain. It could have been a comment passed between Mom and Dad at the dinner table, maybe a grandparent muttering while watching the evening news.
That’s because for kids this age — about 7 to 12 years old — politics is very personal. “When they’re in this stage, they’re really thinking about how is what’s happening around me in the world going to affect me and how I live my life,” explains Amy Jordan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of Children, Adolescents, and the Media. “They’re still thinking in black-and-white terms and still trying to figure out their place within their friendship groups, within their family, within their community.”
Child-development psychologists often refer to this as “concrete operational” phase. Kids are able to think logically and reason with facts. An 8-year-old could probably tell you that Hillary Clinton is a Democrat. But kids in this age group have a harder time thinking in the abstract, so it might be tough for a child to explain what exactly Democrats tend to believe, or the positions the party stands for generally. They latch onto those nuggets of information thanks to parents, friends, home, school, and the memes and funny videos that they’re seeing on the internet. That doesn’t necessarily sound so different from how adults view politics. Indeed, these early introductions to politics are all part of political socialization — the kind of blanket term for how people learn political values. A 7-year-old is just getting introduced his family’s beliefs — but those ideologies are mutable as life experience builds. By the time that kid becomes an adult, new friends, college, jobs gained and lost, travel, volunteer work, marriage — each is going to tweak and transform his political views. But a young kid, naturally, has a very limited lens from which to view election drama.
Which is why children are particularly sensitive to the cues and discussion at home. In a 2003 study, researchers examined the effects of 9/11 media coverage on third-to-fifth graders and picked up an interesting pattern. The scientists interviewed parents and teachers and found that most of the students first learned about the 9/11 attacks in school. But not according to the kids themselves. “The majority of the self-reporting children, in spite of good documentation that they had first heard the news in school,” the researchers noted, “positively endorsed the item ‘my parents told me about it’ when asked how they first learned about the events.” The study focused on one specific traumatic event, but advised more broadly that parents talk directly with kids because they’re looking for answers from them, anyway. Children are also going to pick up parents’ emotional reactions. If Mom or Dad is stressed, a child might start feeling stressed, too.
Take something like Trump’s immigration stance. “He’s bringing black people back to the old country instead of New York,” Stevens, a 9-year-old in that Brooklyn class, said. Stevens told me his family was from Haiti. “He [Trump] doesn’t want any black people in New York, he wants them back in their own country.” That remark is equally jarring — and not correct either, at least based on Trump’s proposed policies so far. But, Jordan says, it’s likely Stevens, or any other kid anxious about deportation, didn’t just come up with the idea. “They’re hearing it from adults in their lives, who are extrapolating it from the news,” she says. That fear of dislocation, real or imagined, Jordan hypothesizes, can cause a lot of anxiety. “They may hear all kinds of content about what Hillary Clinton said, or what Donald Trump said,” Jordan explains, “But what’s going to stick for them is, ‘okay, that affects me.’”
But kids this age are also plenty capable of making their own judgments about the candidates. Kenneth Rubin, a professor of developmental science at the University of Maryland, says we often underestimate kids’ instincts. Even very young children learn quickly about who in their world are the leaders, or the popular people, or the likable ones. They know who the bullies are, and they know who’s being bullied. That translates to presidential candidates, too. But unlike adults, of course, they don’t bring with them the baggage of party affiliations or political biases. Rubin suggests that if you removed parents from the equation, kids would evaluate the candidates’ temperaments fairly objectively, with an eye to how they react to adversity. Perhaps they’d see Trump getting angry when asked a question about Clinton, or Clinton getting anxious when asked about her email server. Children probably wouldn’t have a clue as to the context — but they’d pretty easily be able to describe candidates’ behaviors. A child might not evaluate Trump or Clinton as “presidential,” but he or she might say who’d they’d rather have as a friend, or a parent. Odds are, they wouldn’t want a bully as their mom or dad.
Ultimately, kids are picking up on the same things their parents notice. Even if they’re not able to articulate it, they’re probably a little bummed out by this election, too. They hear the name-calling and insults. They may see the Trump rallies and hear the chants of “Lock her up!” — but they also see protestors outside those rallies who shout insults and slurs at those coming out the doors. “They’re watching what adults are doing and they’re watching what’s happening in the media,” Jordan says. Seeing that aggression on TV — sometimes being rewarded — is confusing and stressful to a kid who’s 9 or 10, and just learning to deal with conflict in his or her own life. “It has an effect on the way children see the world, and their level of comfort,” she says.
Hebrew Language Academy, Mill Basin, New York
Matan, Age 9
Science of Us: Have you been watching the presidential election?Matan, 9: I don’t know the channel of the election, so usually when my parents watch it, I watch it with them.
What have you noticed so far?
I’ve noticed that they’re always trying to get more people to vote for them. I seen the news this morning and it said during the past week Donald Trump has got in 432 additional votes, and Hillary Clinton has only got 105.
That’s pretty specific. What do you think about that?
I think it is wrong. I think Donald Trump, he’s just running to be president because he’s rich.
Oren, 9: And his hair looks like corn hair.
Matan: It’s, like, boyishly white.
Oren: His hair looks like corn hair.
Samuel, 8: And he’s racist.
Oren: That’s why I hate Donald Trump, because his hair looks like corn hair.
Mikayla, 8: It’s, like, orange, and he’s as tan as the table.
SOU: Have you been watching the presidential election?
Omario: Every single day.
What have you noticed?
I noticed that Trump was beating Hillary, and I was like ‘oh, no! I really want Hillary to win.’ But the next day she got more votes and I was so, so happy. I want Hillary to become president because every time I listen to her speak, it’s so persuasive.
Why is she so persuasive?
I’m persuaded about helping the community. I’m about helping the state and the countries cooperate with each other. She’s very persuasive.
Why don’t you like Donald Trump?
He’s racist, and he wants to kill all black people. It’s mean.
What do you think about the presidential race?
Rohn: I think about the presidents. I hope a president is going to win like Hillary Clinton. Not really Hillary Clinton. I think Hillary Clinton is going to go to war or something.
Why do you think she’s going to go to war?
Because I think for Hillary Clinton words are lies.
Jahnia, 8, and Safiyah, 9
SOU: What do you think about the election?
Jahnia: Donald Trump should not be president.
J: Because he would tell people to go back to their countries and stay.
S: We would not want that because we have many friends here who’d we want to stay with.
Does that scare you?
J: To me, not really, but I don’t want him to become president because he would —
S: Separate us.
J: Separate us.
S: We would be separated from all our friends.
What would you tell someone who wanted to vote for Donald Trump?
S: Don’t vote for Donald Trump because if you have a friend who has a different skin color and a different kind of — if you’re African or Israeli then you wouldn’t want to get separated from them because then you would miss them a lot.
J: I would say they’ll separate your best friend.
S: Like us.
J: Who would want to be separated from your best friend? Like us. She’s Haitian, and I’m Jamaican, but I’m kind of Haitian because of half of my family. So we’re probably going to be separated because I’m more Jamaican.
SOU: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve noticed about the presidential race?
Steeve: That Donald Trump is going to become president.
Why is that weird?
My country posts a lot of pictures of him and say he looks like a pig.
What’s your country?
They don’t like him in Haiti?
Because he’s racist.
Why do you think that?
Because he wants to kill all black people.
When did you hear him say that?
On the news. That was probably four, three weeks.
How does that make you feel?
Scared. Because I don’t want to go back to my country. I don’t.
SOU: Who would you vote for?
Nicole: If I would have to vote for Donald Trump.
He’s really funny, if he would do it he would probably make a lot of people laugh when he would talk.
Is that the most important thing about being president?
Not really. The most important thing is to know how to solve problems.
Do you think Donald Trump is going to be the best at that?
Probably because if he knows how to make people laugh. He would make them laugh when they’re in a fight.
SOU: Do you have any opinions about the presidential race?
Shiloh: Yes. I don’t think Donald Trump people should be president because he’s going to send all the black people to Africa. That’s what my mom told me.
How does that make you feel?
That makes me sad because I don’t want to go to Africa. I don’t know what it looks like or what it feels like.
SOU: What do you think about Donald Trump?
Michael: He is nice. I believe my dad that he’s going to change the world.
Why does your dad think that?
Because he likes Donald Trump.
I don’t know, when he heard of him, he said, ‘I think he’s gonna win, blah blah blah. Hillary Clinton is not going to win, blah blah blah.’ He doesn’t like Hillary.
No idea. I don’t know.
Why do you think Trump will be a good president?
Because sometimes he can get mad, sometimes he can get nice. If he gets mad I’m voting for Hillary. I’m going to vote for him. I heard that he’s going to, like, not let the Mexicans go to America. He’s going to make a big wall to block [them]. Someone told me about it. When I was in a different class, all of my friends say, ‘I’m voting for Hillary Clinton’. The only person who wanted to vote for Donald Trump was me and my friend. The Mexicans don’t have good water and you can get sick.
So we should build a wall?
Build a wall for water. I went to Mexico before and I tried the water and my stomach started hurting.
YMCA Day Camp at Hamilton Elementary School, Lakeview, Chicago
SOU: What do you know about [Donald Trump]?
Jackie: He lies a lot.
What does he lie about?
He says to the Mexicans ‘I am going to let you in’ and then he says behind their backs, ‘I’m not going to let them in, I’m not going to let them in.”
Claire: People in my class do not like Donald Trump.
Why don’t they like Donald Trump?
I don’t know. He’s just like — he does a lot of things, like, for reasons; he should stay with what he has, like whenever his wife gets old her divorces her and marries someone else.
And, you don’t like that?
No, because like people want to live with him but can’t when they get old.
What advice would give to people who are going to go out and vote?
I wouldn’t tell them who not to vote for because they might really want Donald Trump and I would respect that, but I would say don’t vote for someone who is just trying to say stuff that you think will help but know won’t, because that is only bringing bad luck to the country and us and everyone else.
Additional reporting by Taylor Harris and Alexis Myers.