Last fall, my first grader had his first brush with politics during a mock election that his school put on for the 2016 presidential election.
He was so excited! I thought it would be fun, too. Interactive learning is always the best: what better way to teach kids how the American democratic system works than by actually showing them? I picked my son up from school after the election, anxious to hear his thoughts on what he had learned. I expected him to have a bazillion questions, as always. What I didn’t expect? A hateful “lesson” on political opinions. No sooner did he step into the car did the following statement come out of his mouth:
“Mom, did you know Hillary Clinton kills babies, and Donald Trump is a liar who hates women?
My son is seven. Seven! An elementary school student, participating in a seemingly harmless and educational mock election. And this is what he took away from the entire exercise: killing and hate. To say I was floored was an understatement. Separating opinion from fact isn’t something a child of that age has the ability to fully discern. This certainly wasn’t a lesson or facts taught by the school. These opinions were shared by fellow students, who heard it from their parents or other authority figures in their young, innocent and oh-so-impressionable lives. My son and countless other fellow students took these opinions into their hearts, and carried them home with them as the truth.
Don’t we owe our children better?! Instead of spouting off polarizing opinions, don’t we owe it to the next generation to teach them the facts? Instead of spewing self-righteous jargon, shouldn’t we be sharing the process by which government functions and operates? A perfect system it is not, but it’s an institution that has stood the test of time, and is undoubtedly worthy of our respect. Teaching our kids that elections and politics in general are only about drawing lines, pointing fingers and name calling is juvenile, not to mention dangerous. It’s no better than the bully on the playground, bulldozing others’ thoughts and feelings and pushing through with subversive ignorance. I don’t think anyone wants their child to be bullied.
I’m a political theory major and a law school graduate. You’d think I’d relish discussing politics. But I don’t. I love political process and theory. I studied ancient political philosophy, theory and the ideas that led to the formation of our Constitution. I worked in a courtroom for nearly a decade, watching the judicial branch of government function. I loved it. But talking about the current political climate? I literally cringe anytime a political topic is raised like abortion or gun control. Do I have my opinions? Yes. Will I share them? Not readily. Why? Because, in my experience, sharing ones opinions and beliefs so often leads to two things: self-righteous posturing, and ultimately polarization. There is rarely an “agreeing to disagree” tenor to the conversation. Instead, voices are raised, feelings are hurt and smugness reigns. My son’s mock election experience is case in point in microcosm.
I know I can’t keep my child in a bubble. We all have our opinions and beliefs, and we are entitled to speak them. My own family is a great example: we are drawn along party lines, with each side holding steadfastly and stubbornly to what is “right”. While there have been healthy debates, there have been heated arguments as well. I can’t stop this, or my child from being exposed to it. But I can and will pledge to teach and demonstrate the following:
- Have an open mind rather than a closed one
- There are three sides to every story: consider all sides before forming an opinion
- Forever be a student of life, learning and growing instead of blindly adopting another’s beliefs
Little ears hear more than we realize. Of course, you have the right to express your political opinions, but please don’t do it in front of my child. Please keep any negative or hateful thoughts about politics to yourself. If you’re sharing facts, please keep your tone free of sanctimony. Please, don’t talk politics in front of my child. I pledge to do the same with your child, regardless of my political opinions or beliefs.
The children of today are the decision makers and leaders of tomorrow. As parents and authority figures, we are entrusted with the enormous, daunting, and wonderful task of raising them. Let’s not mess it up.