My parents talked to me about politics, and it turned me into an enthusiastic voter. Because the memory is so vivid, I believe my first experience with voting came when I was 4 years old. I remember going into an actual voting booth and only being tall enough to see a little of what was going on as my mother, wearing a long wool coat, pulled a lever that closed a curtain behind us. She flipped levers beside the names of several candidates, and then she pulled the lever again, registering her vote and reopening the curtains.
The mystery and solemnity of the voting process were magnified by the mechanical noises going on behind those opaque curtains. I thought it was so cool, and by the time I turned 18, I was particularly bummed when I learned that those hulking machines were things of the past. Connecting arrows with a felt tip pen were decidedly less dramatic, but the process of voting still gave me chills.
Throughout my childhood, there were issues of Time and Newsweek on the coffee table and I read them voraciously. I was a weird kid, but I was an informed weird kid whose parents engaged him on current events and made the evening news daily family viewing.
Decades later, in 2012, my wife took our son to vote at a nearby church. It was the first time he could understand the importance, the nearly sacred responsibility of casting a vote. By that time, he had witnessed a few years worth of 24-hour news and, even though that curtain was replaced by cardboard dividers, he still thought it was pretty cool.
Engaging kids in conversation
When parents do not talk about politics with their children or involve them in their voting rituals, their children usually do not become actively engaged in politics. According to a 2016 survey by Care.com, just 10 percent of parents believe it is good to start talking about politics and issues with children at any age, and only
46 percent engage their kids on the subject. Of the remainder who avoid politics at the dinner table, 90 percent of respondents said they did not believe their children would understand.
Knowledge is power, and it is always appropriate to give your children that power. In 1973, my family was living in suburban Houston when my teacher at A.J. Martin Elementary School canceled a visit to the Houston Zoo, a long ride by bus on the Southwest Freeway. Instead, our class walked a mile, hand-in-hand, to the recently built McDonald’s, where we were shown how the shake machine worked and enjoyed some hamburgers.
Now, anyone who has visited the zoo at Hermann Park knows this was not an equal trade, but McDonald’s was a good way to mollify a class full of disappointed kids. When I asked my parents why the plan had changed, they explained a letter that went out to all parents informing them the school was restricting long-distance field trips due to the energy crisis. Thanks to that McDonald’s trip, I learned about the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
and embargoes. I was a kindergartener.
At that same time, the Watergate hearings were being shown daily, and I watched them while most kids watched The Brady Bunch. By the time President Richard Nixon resigned, I could identify John Sirica, the former boxer and chief judge who presided over the trials of Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, by his wiry eyebrows.
My young life was impacted by presidential misconduct, the energy crisis, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the recession that followed. The only time I experienced information overload was while watching Dan Rather’s five-part documentary on the nuclear arms race, The Defense of the United States, at age 14. My conservative parents were not prepared for the anti-war feelings that emerged after I watched the documentary’s simulation of a 15-megaton nuclear attack on Strategic Air Command.
While those were strange and nightmarish years, our children now live in a time of full-contact political rhetoric on television and social media, global climate change, Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and a deadly pandemic that has been unnecessarily politicized. Compared to my son’s experience of staying home for most of his 15th year of life to avoid contracting the coronavirus, the 1970s were like summer camp.
But Sam was born into a consequential time. When he was 3-and-a-half years old, the United States elected its first Black president. We pointed out President Barack Obama on television and taught Sam to say his name. By the time the 2012 election rolled around, he could talk about the issues with greater clarity than most 7 year olds.
As a freshly minted 10-year-old, he was ready to talk when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision that legalized gay marriage in 2015, and we did. We prepared him with the facts, regardless of our being cisgender straight parents, because facts are always more valuable than opinions.
Today, I spend a significant part of each week writing about politics, but as a longtime journalist, I back up my opinions with hard facts. As such, most of our discussions at home are fact-based rather than uncontrolled deployment of opinions. My wife and I are political animals, but we ground our political ideals in a foundation of reality.
So, when any politician showers their opponent with ad hominem attacks or a cascade of lies, we back up and try to discern the truth buried in all the shrapnel of political warfare. The results are gratifying since Sam can now watch the news and divine the truth while positively identifying the falsities.
This was, to be sure, a gradual process, but sometimes the reality of life in 2020 broadsides parents. A truth tailored to your child’s specific sensitivities is far more effective than a lie, or even simple omission, designed to protect them from emotional harm. By having frequent and casual discussions — not lectures — about current events and politics, most parents can gauge how to approach even difficult talks about race, gender, human rights and the politics that surround them all.
Sam is known to his classmates as having strong opinions about all of those things, and as we find ourselves in the midst of an extremely consequential election, he is vocal in defending his principles. Most importantly, he is fully capable of calling me out when he sees me going off the rails and can tell when I am spouting opinions rather than verifiable facts. Everyone in our house has political opinions, but he knows what those smell like.
Part of our continuing rapport over politics involves the teaching of respect, something that is mirrored in the teachings at Sam’s school, Odyssey Learning Academy. Because the school offers narrative reports rather than letter grades, we learn about how Sam interacts with classmates, including those with whom he disagrees politically. He is firm, but he understands that the kids with whom he disagrees are not bad people because of their political beliefs.
Preparing future voters
In 2020, our politics are unusually disjointed, with deep divisions felt over nearly every current topic. The best thing a conscientious parent can do is have frequent heartfelt conversations, so frequent that they become natural occurrences so that any political subject is on the table and fair game. Find things that are relatable, and most of all, can be humanized. Every event or circumstance has a human component to it, and it is far more important to see the impact politics has on our neighbors, our friends, our family and people we don’t even know instead of merely objectifying political reality.
Every chance possible, kids should be steered toward reliable media sources that do not merely offer “both-sides” journalism but are dedicated to finding and reporting the truth. Let them read or watch news aimed at adults, and if they are exposed to social media, always attempt to provide context for the impassioned and occasionally nonsensical arguments they encounter.
It really just comes down to engagement. If you engage with your children on politics, they will engage with politics as adults. And they will vote.
Help your kids become political fact finders! Just because kids today are adept at learning the world of social media doesn’t mean they also know how to discern fact from fiction. With many kids (and adults too!) getting their news only from social media, it’s imperative to teach them to be critical thinkers who can sniff out a bad source. Families can work together this political season and beyond to find the truth together.