KERRY SNITIL
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is interviewed by Spencer Snitil, 11, of the Freedom News Network in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sept. 22.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/18/2004 3:10:48 PM ET 2004-10-18T19:10:48

How should a parent with strong political opinions talk to their child about their views? And what is Pervasive Developmental Disorder? Columnist Victoria Clayton answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us atchildrenshealth@feedback.msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I have very strong political views. Is it appropriate to let my daughter know about these?

If you listen to the pollsters, you’re not alone: all but a narrow slice of America has strong political views these days. But whether you choose to share your views with your daughter is less of a decision than you might think, according to Dr. Danny Axsom, associate professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. “She’ll probably know about [your political views] anyway simply by being around you, whether you tell her explicitly or not,” says Axsom.

This is the nature of the child-parent relationship; even very young children are typically astute enough to pick up on body language and voice inflections — anything that offers clues about what their parents think and feel.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s unnecessary to talk explicitly about politics; and it doesn’t mean you should schedule a political lecture series instead of reading “Goodnight Moon” to your three-year-old. What it does mean is that when your child asks you about politics, answer.

Usually around school age, children will naturally start to ask questions about topics that are in the news, such as the presidential debates. Some of their class work or activities may even center on politics. Many schools conduct straw polls on the presidential race and preschoolers have even been known to learn about voting with matters that hit close to home (i.e. what’s better strawberry or grape jelly?)

An opportunity to share
Of course, this is good. We all want our children to understand how America’s political system works so that some day they’ll be an active part of it. But there’s something even better to be gained, says Dr. Yo Jackson, a clinical child psychologist at the University of Kansas. Handled correctly, political discussions offer an opportunity for children to more fully understand their parents and their heritage. “The bigger issue here for children is that they truly want to know their parents,” says Jackson.

The key to making a political discussion more meaningful is to focus on how you came to adopt your beliefs. For example, instead of lecturing your daughter on the importance of electing a veteran or someone who opposes the death penalty, tell her as simply as possible how you came to hold your opinions.

“If you’re a strong Democrat or Republican, you may want to tease out why and then go a step further and explain where you got these strong views,” advises Jackson. “What in your life or your family happened that made you arrive at this belief?”

Keep emotions in check
Although Jackson says she realizes it’s difficult, she also advises parents to keep emotions in check while talking politics, listening to the radio or watching television. Young children especially won’t really understand why you’re pounding on the dashboard or shouting at the TV set. All they’ll see is that you’re angry and it may scare them, cause anxiety or make them feel powerless (remember, they can’t vote!)

“The idea is to make yourself a safe place for your children and their questions,” says Jackson. If you accidentally let something fly, make sure you acknowledge it and let your children know you were acting impulsively and immaturely.

Furthermore, it’s wise not to paint a picture that your way is the only way. Neighbors, relatives and other parents may think differently than you and it’s healthiest if children realize this is fine. Help them to understand that these people are still good, intelligent and caring.

Taking an open-minded and accepting approach will likely pay off in the long run too. Around adolescence, kids start to think more abstractly and will likely develop political ideas of their own. If you’ve jammed your perspective down their throats you may be disappointed with what they eventually decide they believe. If, instead, you’ve educated them on the political process and have taken the approach of wanting them to know their family better, it’s far less likely that they’ll form contrary opinions merely to be rebellious and spiteful (although, of course, they may still form contrary opinions).

Axsom and Jackson agree that the less any of these discussions feel like a lecture, the better. They also offer these additional tips on talking about politics with children:

  • Examine your motivations very carefully. If you want to talk to your child about politics just because you want someone to agree with you, it’s probably not appropriate. For this, find other like-minded grown-ups.
  • Don’t dodge questions. If you don’t know an answer to your child's question, admit it. Maybe you can look it up on the Internet or in reference books together.
  • Be careful about mixing morality and politics. “Politics is probably the cloudiest place to talk about morals,” warns Jackson. If the candidate you view as more moral slips up in the future, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.
  • Don't just talk, listen. “You may be surprised and fascinated by what you hear,” says Axsom.Interested in tracking political issues that affect children and families? Check out: www.kidsandpolitics.org

Q: My grandson has been diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder. What is this and what's the latest treatment/research?

Pervasive Developmental Disorder, or PDD, is usually shorthand for a condition technically known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, known as PDD NOS. According to Dr. Fred Volkmar, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center Developmental Disabilities Clinic, pervasive developmental disorders refer to a group of conditions marked by significant problems with social interaction and communication.

The best-known condition within the broad category is autism. However, if a child has some but not all of the criteria for autism or some of the other specific PDDs, he or she may be given the PDD NOS diagnosis (again, commonly referred to as simply PDD).

Some parents and caregivers disagree with the PDD NOS diagnosis because they believe it's vague and simply means doctors don’t really know what’s the matter with a particular child. The truth is that a PDD diagnosis should be heartening because it indicates your grandson may be more functional than a child with autism or other specific disorder and perhaps require less intervention.

More and more is being learned about PDDs in general, but a lot is still unknown, admits Volkmar. What researchers do know is that PDD NOS is relatively rare (it strikes about one in several hundred children, says Volkmar). The etiology of PDD NOS isn’t completely understood, but it’s thought to be a neurobiological condition children are born with.

The earlier the diagnosis is made and intervention begins, the more likely the child will succeed. Sometimes children with PDD NOS are put on medications to help their symptoms but more typically “treatment” involves behavioral and educational programs.

Much is required of parents and caregivers of children with PDD NOS. For starters, you must become an expert on the condition. You have to educate yourself about PDD NOS and the reputable interventions available. Unfortunately, many programs and therapies for PDD NOS make claims that can’t be substantiated and aren’t grounded in fact.

“I encourage parents to pay real attention to what a program’s claims are, look for scientific evidence, and be aware of good objective sources of information,” says Volkmar.

One of the best sources of information to date on programs for children with PDD NOS is a book published by the National Resource Council called “Educating Children with Autism.” You can also find links to solid information and support groups by going to Yale’s Developmental Disabilities Clinic Web site at www.autism.fm.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the forthcoming book "Fearless Pregnancy," due out in November from Fair Winds Press.

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