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Kids, Let’s Talk Politics

Making sure that my three perennially uncooperative children are dressed, that their lunches and snacks are crammed into their backpacks and that they get to the school bus on time.

Making sure there’s a variety of healthy food – more than rejected leftovers, crusty ketchup bottles and ancient Halloween candy castoffs – in the house for said children to eat.

Role modeling “good” behavior (reading, eating well, exercising . . . you know the drill).

Teaching the kids how to be good people and treat others well.

Refereeing sibling arguments that sometimes morph into brawls (when the aforementioned lessons on treating people well are temporarily forgotten during heated disputes over the TV remote control), but trying not to step in too early so that the children can learn to settle their own disputes.

There are so many items on parents’ plates as we try to navigate our child-rearing days. In fact, there’s so much that we’re expected to do that I often find myself recoiling from the non-stop barrage of advice from the parenting “experts” who finger-wag and lecture parents, telling us that we should be living angelic lives and role modeling perfection . . . exemplified by last month’s idiotic recommendations from health experts that parents should have their children leave Santa celery instead of cookies on Christmas Eve in order to teach them about healthy food choices, that is, if your kids are getting healthy eating tips from St. Nick.

But in spite of the fact that I frequently gripe about the overabundance of unsolicited advice that’s heaped onto parental shoulders, I’m going to make a recommendation. To parents. I’ll withstand the accusations of utter, unabashed hypocrisy in order to offer up this counsel: Parents should vote. Every time there’s an election. Primary election, general election, local election, whatever the election, parents should vote AND bring their children with them to demonstrate that voting is what responsible, engaged adults do. Not only that, but parents should talk about the candidates and election issues in front of the kids, or even with the children if the kids are old enough. And should there be political differences between parents, all the better. Discuss those differences – sans any colorful language, name-calling or pitchfork bearing, things that would be frowned upon by those parenting experts – in front of the children as well. Make politics and elections as relevant to the children, as any latest development about the Boston Red Sox or New England Patriots would be.

Every time a presidential election rolls around, there’s inevitably a spate of news articles about how young people don’t vote, how they’re apathetic and becoming more so with every passing year, how they know precious little about government, whether it be their local boards, their state legislature or Congress, how schools don’t teach good old fashioned civics classes any more.

Why not change that, right now, in our own homes? If we can teach our kids about all things Red Sox – everything from Dice-K’s arrival and Curt Schilling’s heroics, to Manny Ramirez’s antics and Jonathan Papelbon’s victorious Irish jig — if we can buy our children sports jerseys and decorate their rooms with Sox paraphernalia, certainly, we can also teach them about rooting for political teams and candidates whose actions may actually affect their lives, more so than whether a certain star rookie Sox player should be traded in order to bulk up the pitching rotation.

I fondly remember my interest in politics and government being sparked by my parents, who would leave the NBC “Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw playing in the background during family dinners. I remember witnessing conversations between my dad, my mother and grandparents about the issues of the day. I remember observing my parents’ intense interest in the 1976 presidential election returns and seeing the worry on their faces during the Iranian hostage crisis. The message that I received was that, to be a responsible adult, I had to know what was going on in the world and was obligated to participate in the electoral process.

With my own kids, I’ve tried to do the same. Though I’m admittedly nowhere near parental perfection — I don’t hand-make Halloween costumes or read the kids books every single night, nor am I the most patient mom to have ever walked the earth — one thing’s for certain, I teach them that voting and keeping up on current events are part and parcel of being an adult.

I frequently put the NBC “Nightly News” news on in the background during dinner, flouting the recommendations of the “experts” who want the television off, particularly during meals. While our family chats about the culinary offerings, at which the kids usually turn up their noses, The Spouse and I explain news items that are of interest to the kids and put those items into context. We’ve recently discussed the war in Iraq, lead in Chinese-made toys and what different presidential candidates say on any given day.

I invite my rug rats to watch the presidential debates with me, until they’re so bored that they flee the room, though one of them was savvy enough to feign interest in a recent debate as a ploy to be able to stay up way beyond his bedtime. The Spouse and I – who are of different political parties but share many of the same viewpoints – try our best NOT to attempt to sway the kids’ perspectives on issues, though it is sometimes difficult when the kids watch debates with us and I cannot refrain from making running commentary.

We tell the kids that voting is a very important duty and that not everyone has always been allowed to vote. (My daughter is still appalled that women have only had the right to vote for less than 100 years; my “Votes for Women” coffee mug is a visual reminder.) And though my 9-year-old son is indignant that he has to wait until he’s 18 to vote – he claims he knows what’s going on, and as a “half-adult” (halfway to 18 years old), he believes he’s entitled to a ballot – we tell him that accompanying us to polls is good training for when he will have the responsibility of making his own decisions.

And what better time than now, during a hotly contested presidential race in both major political parties, to start teaching kids about civic responsibility? Presidential primaries start this month and come at a fast and furious pace through mid-February, when we’re likely to know who the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees will be. After the presidential nominating conventions this summer, we’ll have the general election in November. You’ve practically got a whole year in which to sprinkle little discussions about major political issues into family dinners or to bring up during car rides to gymnastics classes or hockey lessons.

Of all the recommendations that so-called “experts” place upon the shoulders of today’s parents, this one, teaching the kiddos about the importance of elections, is an easy no-brainer. By starting now, while they’re young, and framing voting and current events as something responsible grown-ups do, maybe we can help raise a generation of civically engaged kids, kids who know about more than just the Sox starting line-up.

And, if the sports-Sox analogy doesn’t work for you, how about this one:

Which would you rather have your children paying more attention to, the presidential elections in a time of war, or who’s going to win the next “American Idol” contest, which also starts this month? Sure, Simon Cowell may be more entertaining to watch as he viciously shreds “Idol” hopefuls than journalists questioning presidential candidates, but which outcome will have a greater impact on your family and your kids?

Meredith O’Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum and can be found blogging about parenthood at her blog, suburbanmomnotes.blogspot.com, and writing about working moms and pop culture at Mommy Track’d.

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