My daughter stayed up late with us last week to watch the presidential debates. Even though it was breaking the cardinal parenting rule of “It’s way past your bedtime” a.k.a “My sanity is important, too”, I think it’s important for a child to be exposed early to political discourse. My first experience with politics is clear as a bell. I was about four and it was 1980. My friends and I were walking around the courtyard in a smallish apartment complex and talking about politics.
“My mommy likes President Carter,” one of my little friends said, “so that’s who I want to win.”
“I think my mom likes him, too.” I had no idea because my mom was knee deep in a trauma rotation at a local emergency room. I’m pretty sure politics, particularly those of a country she’d only lived in for six years, was a priority. I knew my dad’s feelings on the subject. He didn’t like Carter’s challenger on the basis of the fact that he was an actor at one point and that was enough to disqualify him from being distinguished enough to be the leader of the free world.
It just occurred to me that my parents were roughly the same age that I am now at that time. Culture and time impacts the values of a family so hard. I remember the issues were more concrete for my parents as time went on and things like how much they earned and how long they’d been here both increased considerably.While in 1980 they had been relatively unconcerned with general politics, by 1984 and 1988 they were hard line in their support of conservative agendas. Fast forward and my brother and me are staunch liberals. Our parents came here from somewhere else with very little and became conservative. We grew up in the same place our whole lives with so much and became liberals.
Time and culture impacting the politics of one family. It’s fascinating. Someone should do a study.
Anyway, I was unsurprised when my seven year old daughter asked me why I planned on voting for President Obama. We talk about a lot of political type things in our house even now. I mean, I’ve been doing this as you now know since I was four.
Still, I wanted to be extremely careful in the way I explained it. In the end, one wants their children to make up their own minds about these things. You don’t want to unduly influence them, right? This fear inevitably leads to the “I don’t want to tell you what I think, but here’s what I think, and I *am* bigger than you and control the candy disbursal around here…” song and dance.
“Okay. So this pyramid is our society. You know what society is, right?”
“It’s a group of people who’ve decided to live by the same set of rules and stuff. Like America.”
“Yeah, Memphis is a smaller society within a greater society called America.”
“Is Florida in America?”
“So, we live in this society and it’s shaped like a triangle because it kind of reflects how resources — another name for food and money — are distributed. See, up here is small because it has fewer people in it, but those few people control a lot of resources. It gets wider and wider because more and more people are being included — but the number of resources doesn’t increase. Get it?”
“The people on top are bad because they don’t share?”
“Nooo, I didn’t say that, but it’s interesting that you bring that up because most political discussions are in one way or another addressing that issue. Like, if you’re a Democrat, you think the government has a responsibility to make sure resources, or money, is more evenly distributed. Republicans, on the other hand, would say that you should just leave distribution of money up to society and that government shouldn’t be involved,” I place the tip of my index finger over the apex of the quickly sketched triangle, “They think if the government doesn’t need to bother itself with evening things out because these people will do the right thing if you let them.”
Then my mind wanders and I’m awestruck by how simple it seems on paper.
I’m also a little impressed with how good I’m making both sides of this look. You know, here I am a total bleeding heart liberal who thinks a large Coke from McDonald’s should be regulated (yeah, that liberal) yet I am so committed to my child’s objectivity when it comes to the political process that I am willing to present the alternative to my beliefs as a rational preference. I’m offering up the alternative as though it’s something as benign as wanting sugar in your coffee or not. It’s not easy to make a distinction like that when you’re strongly tied to a certain definition of social justice.
Excuse me while I pat myself of on the back for a while.
When I come back I see my child has scrawled nearly illegibly on the bottom of the page the following words:
“If you have a lot of money, you should give it to the poor.”
So much for objectivity.
Let’s face it. I failed to be objective. Something in my voice or what I said gave it away. This is because there’s just not a lot of room for objective presentation when it comes to values.
We value ideas because they are, wait for it, valuable to us. Many times, we choose one set of values over another because we believe that what we have chosen is superior to the alternative. Not all the time is about superiority, but most of the time is. So, when I explain politics to my child, no matter what I say or what my intention is, I color that presentation with the passion of what I believe to be both just and true.
That’s totally fine.
And results in her writing Robin Hoodesque musings on the bottom of my presentations.
Which are better than Marie Antoinettesque musings.
Look, I just don’t really know how to do it any other way.