Kids and Politics in a Presidential Election Year
By: Mark Hagland
When I was growing up it was often said that there are three things one should never discuss in “mixed” company: religion, sex, and politics. Now that I’m a parent, I strongly disagree with trying to shield children from politics. In fact, I see this through the same lens I use as a person of color, with regard to the realities of race and white privilege: it is in fact important to begin explaining politics to your children (in an age-appropriate way) in order to prepare them to move out in the world and to help them see the world as it is, with all its complexities and issues. It only makes sense to me.
This being an election year, there’s really no escaping politics, even if one wanted to. After all, the choices facing our country are enormous. And it’s a wonderful opportunity, I think, to talk about more abstract issues like values. My daughter is ten years old now, and though she isn’t yet interested in politics per se, I can already see that she has some societal consciousness—which I am absolutely trying to help cultivate and guide—and that she’s beginning to be interested in the wider world.
Of course, I want to teach her my values -of inclusiveness, compassion, and progressivism. We recently had a conversation about the homeless lady on the street to whom we gave an apple a year and a half ago. It was a cold December day in downtown Chicago, and my daughter, troubled at the sight of this tiny, vulnerable lady, asked if there was anything we could do. Fortunately, I happened to have an apple in my book bag with me, and asked her to hand it to the woman. She did, and the woman seemed very grateful. I knew as it was happening that it was a great teaching moment.
In the middle-class suburb where my daughter lives with her mother, there are no panhandlers or street people, and every time we see one in Chicago, I know it disturbs my daughter. What’s great is that she asks good questions, like why are those people asking for money? do they have homes? I explain as best I can and suggest compassion and understanding as responses.
I’ve widened the conversation to include issues about how to deal with the reality that, on a broader level, our society has a lot of poor people, and that that is partly what this whole “politics” thing is about; it’s about how grown-ups view the world around them and what values and priorities we have for our society.
She has asked me why some people are Democrats and some are Republicans. Both her mother and I are progressive, and I make no secret of my own politics. She once asked me, “Are all Republicans bad?” to which I replied, “No, of course, not, Honey. They just see the world differently.” I express confidence in my political views, and explain why I hold them, but quickly add that “Good people can disagree on what they believe and why they believe it.”
My daughter and her mother live in a very, very Republican area, so while I definitely want to get my own political views across, I have to do it in a careful way in order to help her navigate the social community in which she’s living, a community very different from the Chicago she visits a few times a year.
Inevitably, race comes into the discussion, not only because we have an African-American president, but frankly, because of the racism directed at him and his family. I’ve been open in explaining to my daughter that, while some good people oppose President Obama, there are a lot of people -racists- who hate him just because he’s black. “That’s so dumb!” she exclaims (and she’s right). But I’ve tried to put all this into a historical context for her. After all, Obama was elected president in 2008, when my daughter was just six years old, so he’s been president long before she was even vaguely aware of politics.
In the end, I’ve not only found it a good experience to explain some basics to my daughter, but also to use the opportunity to talk about broader values such as compassion, inclusiveness, community, responsibility, and aspiration. I think it would be bad parenting if I weren’t explaining some of these things to her now, because in 2020, she’ll have the opportunity and responsibility to vote in a presidential election herself.