Take the 2-minute tour ×
Parenting Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for parents, grandparents, nannies and others with a parenting role. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm curious what the correct way would be to explain the difference between right wing and left wing politics to a child without even a hint of bias and without indoctrinating them. Here's my stab:

The political spectrum can be described as a straight line that has what we call the "left" at one end, and the "right" at the other end. Each has a very different way of looking at the world and deciding between right and wrong in the world, and one is the opposite of the other. On the right, people believe that everybody should be free to do what they want, and that the government should stay out of their lives as much as possible. On the left, people believe that everybody has the right to a basic standard of living, and that its OK to give up some freedom in exchange for privileges like roads, and doctors, even if you can't afford them.

Here's my concern. I think its important in any description of the political spectrum to explain not only what each side wants, but what they are giving up in exchange. I'm worried that in my explanation above, I've not properly explained that in a right-wing world-view, some people are necessarily left behind. I don't know how to do this without biasing the listener unreasonably. Furthermore, how do I reflect that on the left, in exchange for social justice, people aren't able to maximize their quality of life in the way that they could in a more libertarian society. Finally, I would like to explain the role of capitalism, but without confusing a child with too much political nuance.

UPDATE:

There is some confusion over what the exercise actually is here. The goal is not to explain all political views without pigeonholing anybody. Yes, very few people, especially in America, sit very far outside the center of the spectrum, and many people share beliefs from one end of the isle, and some from the other. The goal is to explain the difference between "left" and "right" wing politics so they can understand what people are talking about when these terms are used.

share|improve this question
23  
Right and left does not exist. They are political oversimplifications designed to foster groupthink and an us-vs-them mentality. You can't explain it without bias, because if you even try you are biased. Your description is simply incorrect, the political spectrum can not be described as a straight line with left and right. I suspect that explaining politics without bias becomes much easier once you drop the left-to-right idea. :-) (And as such I think your description of the standpoints are incorrect too, but I'm biased. On a scale of left to right, I'm in the front). –  Lennart Regebro Apr 28 '11 at 20:50
3  
I (respectfully) disagree with @Lennart about left and right not existing. There are sets of opinions that are virtually the entire political community classifies as left, and as right. I do agree that you cannot explain them without bias. For that matter, capitalism itself as a concept is one that leans more right than left, even further complicating the issue of explaining without bias. –  corsiKa Apr 29 '11 at 5:55
4  
@glowcoder: Capitalism only leans more right then left if you are stuck in a right-left think. Buuuuut, that's wildly off topic. I'll stop now. We can discuss politics somewhere else if you like. :-) (But then again, most answers discuss what left and right is, not how to explain it, which proves my point. I think this question should be closed). –  Lennart Regebro Apr 29 '11 at 7:59
2  
My viewpoint is definitely not worth an answer, but as I am staggeringly cynical I am teaching my children that there is no difference between most political parties and politicians - they are all corrupt and self serving, with the sole aim of remaining in power. Their only connection with the population is not to provide better lifestyles, but to get votes. This may not be appropriate in all countries, but it defeinitely is in the UK and US! –  Rory Alsop Jun 17 '11 at 9:23
5  
Don't do it! Tell the child to go outside and play, and enjoy being a child! They will have plenty of time later in life to care about politics, but for now let them be a kid. –  Tester101 Jun 17 '11 at 12:49

13 Answers 13

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It sounds like you are trying to provide an objective definition to a subjective characterization.

In point of fact, your definition as-is seems rather bias-heavy, simply because the meaning of "left" and "right" are so subjective.

For example, you characterize "right" as believing that the government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible, yet there are quite a few people characterized as "right" who feel that the government should define terms and rules that "left" people should not (from an American standpoint, as an example, very few "left" people support government bans of same-sex marriage; the majority of people demanding that the government define marriage as only being between man and woman are very much "right-wingers").

On the other hand, you are claiming that "left" people feel it is OK to give up some freedoms. I do not believe that this is universally true for all "left" people, or even the majority (I can't give an example because honestly I just can't think of any freedoms "lefts" support giving up).

In short, I don't know that there is a way to do what you are asking (i.e. without any bias). It is just too subjective.

Perhaps you might consider avoiding discussion of the arbitrary categorizations altogether, and instead focus on the differing perspectives on specific issues. If you do discuss major political groups, you can talk about how the groups form so that they can work together, and therefore accomplish more than they would as individuals, even though they won't all agree on each issue (i.e. even if a group of people can't agree about how much of a tax break for businesses is necessary to stimulate the economy, they might all agree that some tax break is a good idea, and therefore join together as a political party, because a bunch of people saying "we want tax breaks for businesses" is a more effective than them arguing over the details). This has the added benefit of emphasizing the importance of cooperation and compromise.

Edit: In response to your clarification: if the goal is to simply give the child a frame of reference for what the terms refer to, then I believe you best bet at minimizing bias would be to be as vague and general as possible. I would also suggest avoiding mentioning any perceived negatives (or "what they are giving up in exchange"), since that is far more subjective (and, at least in America, most people want to get what they want, without actually being willing to give up anything in exchange).

For example: "Right" wing politics usually means people who feel that the best approach is to ensure that all the businesses have an opportunity to do well, and that when businesses do well, it makes people do well, and that makes life better for everyone. "Left" wing politics usually means people who feel that the best approach is to ensure that all the people have an opportunity to do well, and that when people do well, businesses do well, and that makes life better for everyone.

share|improve this answer
    
I think that those on the left wing might be more willing to have more taxes for roads and schools, medicine and such rather than giving up freedoms. –  kleineg Jun 17 at 18:27
    
Although unfettered access to weapons might be a sticking point there. –  kleineg Jun 17 at 18:27
    
@kleineg That's exactly the kind of problem I'm pointing out. I don't know any "left wingers" who would support more taxes, even for schools (and I no absolutely no one saying "more money for roads!"). Rather, they'd rather see existing funds reallocated. I also know people on the left who are strong supporters of gun rights. This is why an "unbiased" assessment is so difficult (impossible). –  Beofett Jun 17 at 18:36
    
Maybe it is a symptom of the fact that we have created a system of duality where none exists, a zero sum game where there should be 4-5 good options. Trying to define people in a 1D spectrum where everyone is hiding behind rhetoric... I'll stop now. –  kleineg Jun 17 at 18:40

How to explain "right" and "left" politics to a child, when most adult cannot agree on a meaningful definition? Well...

I would probably start by explaining how different people have different opinions, for many reasons, both right and wrong. Sometimes they don't know something, or they don't care. Sometimes they have different experiences. (Two people will try the same thing; one will succeed and one will fail. Will they agree about whether it was the right thing to do? Whether they should do it the next time?) Sometimes they have different preferences. (Is ice cream better than chocolate? Should we watch TV or go to the ZOO?) -- Use many specific examples.

Then I would add a warning that people can be pretty sensitive about their opinions, sometimes very irrational. It is OK to communicate with people, it is OK to learn and to teach, but when you see that someone is in a bad mood, their voice gets louder or they start insulting... then it is better to change the topic or leave. If it happens regularly with the same person, then it is perhaps better to not discuss some topics with that person. -- Again, some (non-political) examples of someone becoming angry at some discussion.

Now we are prepared for the very essense of the question: what is the difference between "right" and "left" politics. (Because so far, everything said was symmetric. Now it is time to deal with the assymetry.)

The "right" generally prefers traditional things. If someone wants to have a king, or says "let's do this, because this is what people did in the past, and it was good, so we should preserve the tradition", this would be usually labeled as the "right". Other typically "right" opinions: people are different, the smart people should decide, people should be responsible for their own actions.

The "left" generally prefers new things. If someone says "let's throw away the old customs and do it completely differently, because it was bad and we can do it much better", this would be usually labeled as the "left". Other typically "left" opinions: people are the same (their differences are the consequences of how other people treat them), everything should be decided together, people should help other people.

But these are just the general rules. No sane person is 100% "right" or 100% "left", because in different situations different things may be better. (Sometimes the new thing is better than the old one. Sometimes the new thing turns out bad. Sometimes people help each other and are happy together. Sometimes people abuse the helpfullness of others. Sometimes it is good to listen to everyone. Sometimes some people say stupid things and it is better to ignore them.) But many people do prefer one of these sides, and identify with it, just like when someone supports a specific football team. The problem is when someone becomes such a strong fan that they start hating the other side, which is a bad thing.

Again, it could be followed by specific examples of when some change was good or bad, when it was good to listen to everyone and when it was good to listen to the smart/informed one.

And then, perhaps, some specific political problems in your country could be touched gently. For example: "Some people don't have a job, so other people give part of their money to state, and state gives that money to the people without jobs. It was suggested that more money should be distributed this way. Some people think it will be a good thing, because the families of people without jobs will have more money, and can buy more useful things. Other people think it will be a bad thing, because some people may choose to stay at home and let others work for them, and the families of people with jobs will have less money than before. Can you guess which of these opinions is called 'right' and which is called 'left'? How would you approach this problem?" Remind the child that they don't have to choose only from the two extreme positions. Don't criticize the choice, but hint at some possible consequences, both good and bad. Also tell that it is OK if we can't completely solve this problem now, because adults have difficulties with this too. (The goal is not to solve a political problem. The goal is to explain what politics is, and what is political "right" and "left".)

Actually, I think that many adult people would need an explanation like this, too.

share|improve this answer

I would suggest not bothering to explain too much until they've learned a little about how the system works. If your kid is 3rd grade or under it can be as simple as, "different people can care very much about the same thing but have different solutions to a problem they think will work best to solve the problem".

For older kids (you think are ready) going over different party views and ways of thinking about a certain topic your child can relate to (don't forget independent, green etc. Even if Reps and Demos are more powerful right now, if you are truly trying not to be biased you've got to include ALL viewpoints.

Start with something along the lines of, "party x believes that the most helpful thing to do is . . . They think this way because their root assumption is . . ."

Follow up in the same way for party b, c, d, etc.

For even older kids (Middle School and up). I know you're not there yet, but you will get there so I thought I'd include it. Look at party platforms together. Ask questions about what they think about what they are reading. Play a little devil's advocate and debate a little for the sake of polite debating. Try to watch different news channels (because they all offer a little bias). Teach about bias and how to look for it. Ask lots of questions and have your own debates and discussions over dinner together (just make sure you talk to your adolescent teen as though they are some one else's kid so you keep it polite and respectful if you do start honestly feeling heated about something you are discussing).

share|improve this answer

It's simple. One side is right, one side is wrong. ;0)

Keep in mind that in the US, and especially elsewhere (Canada, Europe, etc.) political beliefs do not fall easily on a 1 dimensional line. You really need to plot them on a x/y axis and, even then, there's a whole world of variety there.

I think your goal should simply explain how the legislative branch works. And part of that is our political party system. People have certain believes and will often align themselves into a group of similar minded people.

Beyond that, teach them how to think...evaluate...observe...empathize.

And a degree in Global Economics wouldn't hurt, either. ;)

share|improve this answer

In school, I learned that the distinction between left-wing and right-wing is as simple as a matter of how people in the first parliaments of Europe seated themselves. Politicians that ran in similar circles sat near each other, and groups that were at least somewhat closely aligned tended to sit near members of other parties that they could stand well enough to coalition with on certain issues. The oversimplified version was that they wanted to sit near their friends.

I think that the above description is more accurate than the individual freedom/collective good distinction that you're making. If you consider the anarcho-syndicalist tradition (and what parent doesn't, really?) there was an attempt to allow collective good and individual freedom to coexist by making membership in your society something voluntary, where you agreed to certain rules within that community but in the absence of some powerful, central government. And "right wing" wasn't always about individual freedom/freedom from government; it's historically often been quite the opposite, and this disconnect continues between the different factions of the Republican party that say that individuals shouldn't be allowed to do things that libertarian factions of the Republican party consider to be a matter of individual freedom. Similar inconsistencies exist within the left, too.

In the contemporary political sphere, the distinction between "left" and "right" is so convoluted that I'm not even sure I understand it anymore, and I was obsessed about such details as a progressive, individual freedom- and collective good-loving college student. As a parent, it might be fairer to explain that the distinctions are really not as black-and-white as they seem. My mother, who leaned toward the Democratic Party but was, and is skeptical of all politicians in general, said things like the Democratic candidates "tended" to support X/Y/Z, and the Republican candidates "tended" not to.

In my case, I plan on teaching the historical distinctions, attempt to clarify my understanding of the current differences between the left and right, and acknowledge that my understanding is probably not the final authority, and that these distinctions change in subtle ways over time. Then I'd focus on teaching what I value, rather than trying to keep straight which side is which. Objectivity isn't that important when talking about politics anyway.

share|improve this answer

I bought this poster for my office wall and I don't think it could be any better explained:

http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2009/left-vs-right/

my 2c

share|improve this answer
2  
That poster is filled with inaccuracies and gross over-generalizations. –  Beofett Jun 15 '11 at 12:01
3  
US Politics are filled with inaccuracies and gross over-generalizations. –  DA01 Jun 15 '11 at 20:19

By and large, it's pretty simple. There are exceptions within specific political parties that are primarily driven by the social situation and biases of the members of that party. But the underlying political principles of "Right" and "Left" are readily defined in an unbiased and clear way, entirely independent of political parties.

Left
Believes that government and regulation should take a more active role in the lives of the people, helping create a more desirable condition for the people who live under it. This could include social programs, health programs, market regulation, enforcement of important social rules, etc.

Right
Believes that the government and regulation should be less involved in the lives of the people, with other aspects of society providing that function instead -- be they markets, corporations, community groups, or simply the self-correctional influences of a given environment.

Many people caricaturize these two sides as "big government" versus "big business", but both neither is necessarily correct. Also, "Right" and "Left" should not be confused with "Republican" and "Democrat". Though the two parties do tend to lean in opposite directions, they do not *define* the ideals they often espouse.


EDIT
The irony here is interesting. When two different people can look at the exact same assertion and both be offended by how biased it is... but toward the exact opposite viewpoints -- well, then clearly you will never come up with any definition that both sides would consider neutral.

share|improve this answer
1  
+1 for the distinction of Right/Left vs Rep/Dem. Although, you left out one of the primary leftist principles: progressive redistribution of wealth. That aside, I think your analysis of right and left is fairly spot on, and seems to not favor one or the other. –  corsiKa Apr 29 '11 at 6:01
2  
I'd have to disagree with the comments about "right" people believing that government and regulation should be less involved in the lives of the people (see my answer for an example that contradicts that, and there are a number of others). I'd also have to disagree with "lefts like redistribution of wealth". Both sides advocate redistribution of wealth (i.e. taxes). They just disagree on what that tax money should be used for (incidentally I know a LOT of "rights" claim they are opposed to taxes, yet they rely on programs that cannot function without taxes). –  Beofett Apr 29 '11 at 11:32
2  
Additionally, I have only ever heard the idea that "left" equals "big government" come from the mouths of "right" people. It is a misinterpretation of common "left" agenda. Again, there are plenty of aspects of government that "rights" support increasing, that "lefts" want reduced (military being a prime example). –  Beofett Apr 29 '11 at 11:35
3  
-1 for "Believes that the government and regulation should be less involved in the lives of the people" because this is objectively false. The political right believes that the government should be involved in everything from people's sex lives to religion (eg, the Ten Commandments in a courtroom). They believe deeply in the redistribution of wealth in the form of--for example--tax breaks for oil companies, which seriously distort the energy market. –  philosodad May 2 '11 at 4:41
1  
Keep in mind the advertised beliefs of a party rarely translate to actual actions. There's a lot of do what we say, not as we do in politics. –  DA01 Jun 15 '11 at 20:21

If you want to be honest, and you want to avoid bias, you have to tell your child that "Left" and "Right" are historical terms, originating in post revolutionary France, that no longer have an objective meaning. In general, they are labels that people attach to themselves to lay claim to some sort of idea, like "freedom" or "compassion", but that don't actually translate into policies that support those ideas. The reason for this is that the ideas themselves are very scattered and sometimes mutually exclusive.

You could also just give them the worlds shortest political quiz and point out that there are more than two dimensions of political identity.

share|improve this answer

If you want to give a child an unbiased view on anything, you have to let them hear both sides, especially if the topic is biased by nature.

For instance, if you watch the State of the Union, listen to the response from the other party. If you watch one convention, watch the other, in similar detail. Don't focus on getting it exactly balanced, but make sure there is balance.

Now, not all of this will make sense to a child. But, do try and find balance in each opinion, stick to the facts as much as possible, and good luck!

share|improve this answer

The "economic self government" vs "personal self government" axes are useful conceptually to see where "right" and "left" fit in. There's a decent diamond-shaped chart here. It doesn't work perfectly, of course; gun control is an issue of personal governance, yet the left is restrictive and the right permissive, while trade protection is an issue of economic governance yet to the extent that there are tendencies in the U.S., left tends to be permissive and right restrictive.

But, for the most part, the right believes in economic freedom with personal constraints and the left believes in personal freedom with economic constraints. Leaving aside why things have turned out this way, I think this is a decent way to introduce the left/right spectrum to a child. (I do not think the left-vs-right political spectrum line on that page is particularly helpful; to understand why the problematic labels are problematic and where they fit in a spectrum of views requires a lot of background. Without the background, it's borderline misleading.)

share|improve this answer

Disclaimer: I have a daughter, so I usually refer to "the child" as a she. I don't mean to offend anyone, I just think typing "he or she" everywhere is silly.

Teaching Politics to a Ten-Year Old:

Define Politics

I would say the first thing is to explain what "politics" is. You have a set of issues, and a set of people who have an opinion on those issues. This is true with government, school, work, and even mom and dad. Someone who "plays politics" will try to have their opinion be the accepted opinion. Those who are more successful at it will be the ones who are able to get their opinion accepted the most, while sustaining the least negative repercussions.

An example she can use

Consider if her teacher said "We will have a quiz every day for a month." She has to balance her power of "I'm the teacher, what I say goes" with the resistance of the kids, since they certainly are not going to like the idea of a quiz every day for a month. If she were a suave politician, she would be able to manifest this opinion without taking negative repercussions.

Matching up to the real world

Now, we are beyond what is easy to discuss. It is important to keep the child focused on the fact that every political situation can be described by the first paragraph. It does not necessarily mean that someone who tries to manifest their opinion, "play politics", is doing so in a deceitful manner. It just happens that the ones who are able to do so in a deceitful manner are at an advantage over those who don't (because they have extra cards in their hand.)

When you want to delve into governmental politics, you have to identify the issues that are being discussed. Each politician is going to have a particular opinion on a given issue. In theory, the opinion is going to be the collective opinion of those who elected him. There are plenty of cases where this is not the case. He may have been elected because of his stance on a set of issues his constituents thought were very important, and they were willing to elect someone who felt differently about that one particular issue. It's also conceivable that he lied about a particular opinion on an issue, or merely neglected to make it clear what his position was, in order to get elected. The latter is more common, due to the sheer amount of information available to find out when people flat out lie (although, again, a truly suave politician can convince the voters that a particular issue doesn't matter!)

Engaging her on an issue

What I would do, if you want a fair introduction, is (after explaining the above background information) take two people with equal influence on the child (parents come to mind) but opposing views on a particular subject. Make it clear to her that it is acceptable to have opposing views, and to be respectful about it. I love my wife, but we disagree on a number of political issues. (We also disagree about who should pick up socks, but that's another story!) I'd also encourage you to, before you tell her where you both stand on the issue, ask her how she feels about it, and why she feels that way. I would encourage her to make sure that, whenever she can, she bases her opinions on fact.

Right vs Left

At this point, she should have the ability to look at an issue and be able to understand the arguments on either side. Right and left can be seen as a set of philosophies (agree or disagree) that lend themselves toward certain opinions on a given issue. For example one might say on the issue of deficit reduction, the left view would be to increase revenue while the right view would be to reduce spending. Of course, both sides will say we need to reduce waste and eliminate tax loopholes, so obviously there is some overlap in their opinions. But not many people would say "we should increase waste" would they? :-)

A few personal notes

  • As a religious person, I do run into (on occasion) times where I will disagree with whom I am debating on what is and is not a fact. I do my best to avoid facts that are based on my religion. It's not that I don't believe them to be fact, it's merely that it will be impossible to convince someone of your opinion if they will not agree with you on what is fact. Luckily, I also have a firm grasp of a number of scientific disciplines, and know how to find reputable sources of information and am able to mitigate the difficulty run into by this situation.

  • Keep in mind that this post was formed with -my- political bias as well. I believe we should be respectful of other opinions. I know some people who feel otherwise. I have to admit it's difficult to respect that, which is a true irony, because it implies that I only respect people who agree with me. I don't think that's true - I just think people need a mutual respect to start from, or they won't get anywhere in their debate and might as well not bother.

  • I welcome any and all comments on this approach. I am more than willing to address bias contained in it, as well as logically flaws and all around bad advice, and edit the post appropriately. My goal is to give what I feel is a reasoned, objective approach to hopefully bring up a child who is able to make informed decisions about what she believes.

share|improve this answer
2  
+1. While you technically didn't answer the question (i.e. "right" vs. "left"), I think it was a better answer than the question deserved. –  Beofett Apr 29 '11 at 0:24
    
@Beofett wow I suppose you're right. It's actually only a two sentence or so fix. I'll edit it in. Thanks! –  corsiKa Apr 29 '11 at 6:02
    
Hmm.. so I added a little more than two. I could've done it shorter, but why? :-) –  corsiKa Apr 29 '11 at 6:08

Left and Right is a label that political debaters choose to apply to themselves. For an example, consider demonstrating how many parties in Europe claim to be one alignment or the other yet support actions that contract the values of their similarly-labelled American political parties.

share|improve this answer
    
This person is asking how to speak to a primary school student about this topic. Perhaps a simpler response is in order. For example, I would simply say that sometimes two groups of people that both really want to do the right thing, might have a different idea about what the "right thing" is. In our country we have two important groups of people that are a bit like "clubs" that disagree on what kinds of laws we should have as a country and how we should spend our country's money. That is all the political parties are - even though both groups want good things for our country. –  balanced mama Jul 9 '12 at 3:21

The biggest problem with the whole system is that it's categorized as two opposing sides, when, in reality, most people agree with some points on both sides.

I would simply explain specific issues in as neutral a way as possible: "Some people believe X for these reasons, and other people believe Y for these other reasons." If you try to cover the overarching ideologies, you're going to run into the problem that not even the people who supposedly ascribe to those ideologies believe ALL of those things. Don't feel like you have to give equal time though: some people believe things that are just incorrect. You don't need to teach the controversy.

Then you let them make their own decisions based on the facts. They'll be wrong decisions, but that's fine. The act of choosing instead of having it forced on you is healthier, and the lesson will persist. As they learn more about the world, they won't be afraid to change their thinking.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.