Fostering Our Children's Understanding Of Politics

by Christine Burke
Scary Mommy black logo with a red crown illustration

As he hurriedly barged into the kitchen after school, excitement on his face, my son made an announcement: He’d decided to run for president of his eighth-grade class. As he detailed his plans using words like “platform” and “campaign,” I smiled with pride. My husband and I feel strongly about exercising our rights to vote and participating in local government, and I was thrilled to see that our son was throwing his hat into the political ring.

My view of politics was shaped at an early age by parents who made elections and governing part of our household dialogue. My father, a staunch conservative Republican, and my mother, a bleeding heart liberal Democrat, never shied away from discussions about their views at the dinner table. I grew up listening to my father rant about Social Security and my mother taught me to say “Jimmy Carter” before I could say my name. In the evenings, I watched Cokie Roberts report from Capitol Hill and Tim Russet became a part of the family every Sunday as he moderated Meet the Press. To this day, I still ask my mother who is running in certain Congressional districts because she has them memorized in much the same way my kids know every single Minecraft character in existence.

Over the years, while I have struggled at times, I’ve been able to clearly define my political views largely due to my parents and their willingness to openly discuss social issues. I have grown increasingly confident in asserting those opinions, and though my dad passed away a few years ago, I can hear him snorting when I strenuously defend my party and the candidates I support. Not only did they help me learn the ins and outs of the governing process, my parents also taught me how to weigh both sides of a political coin. And, now that my kids are getting closer to the voting age, I want to make sure I am encouraging them to find their own political voices — even if their views differ from mine.

Already, my kids are getting a taste of what I grew up with as a kid. My husband and I reside on opposite sides of the aisle, and we, too, have rousing discussions about our candidates and parties. And though our discussions sometimes get heated, we make sure we are sticking with facts and well-thought-out rationales in an effort to show our kids that hate and vitriol have no place in the selection of a good leader. We hope that by clearly stating our views and answering our kids’ questions, we are raising fair-minded citizens who care about their community.

But talking about politics with your kids goes beyond arguing at the dinner table. Kids learn by doing and by example, and both my husband and I want our kids to see us “walking the walk.” We carve out time to take them to the polls with us and explain how the polling booth works as we vote in local and presidential elections. We introduce them to our local representatives at community events and explain to them what our governing officials do for our town. Both my husband and I have served on executive governing boards for our schools and scouts and, while I loved being part of the process, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the feel of holding a gavel, too.

Our kids have seen me stand up and speak at zoning board meetings and take on the school board when our teachers needed support during contract negotiations. They have watched me preside over PTA meetings and sit on our neighborhood association board. Along the way, I’ve always tried to instill the belief that their voice matters, no matter how small their contribution may seem or feel. When my son announced his candidacy and showed genuine excitement and enthusiasm, I vowed to help him develop his campaign strategy and platform anyway I could. And also, I instantly declared myself his campaign manager.

Children want to learn about their country and their leaders. They want to feel safe and protected, and our job as parents isn’t to scare them or make them repeat hate-filled angry rhetoric. Our job is to help them learn the importance of civic duty and the necessity of voting to be heard. We should be explaining how the electoral college works rather than spouting off half-truths about the candidate we despise. We should talk to them about check and balances, ways and means, and most importantly, democracy.

We should be fostering hope. Not hate.

My son is running for class president, and as his self-appointed campaign manager, we’ve had many discussions about his platform. We’ve talked about following through on promises and integrity while campaigning. As we discussed campaign slogans, he simply grinned at me and said he wanted to be “the good guy” of the race and hoped that his underdog status would endear him to his acned constituents. Whatever the outcome of his November 8 election (yes, the same day as that other election), I know that he’s going into his race with a good, honest platform and that we’ve laid a foundation for him to be excited about performing his civic duties. And I’m proud of him for taking a chance on politics during such a turbulent time.

I still think he should have picked my “Vote for me because my mom already told the internet that I won” campaign slogan though.