Kids And Politics
Are yours ignoring the election? There's a trick to raising
children who care about civic affairs
These are exciting times around our house, and it's not the
economy, stupid. It's the election. Our two-year-old loves the
balloons. Our seven-year-old can't wait to vote in our upcoming
bake-off between Tipper Gore's Ginger Snaps and Laura Bush's
Texas Governor's Mansion Cowboy Cookies. And our 10-year-old
still can't get over the friendship between Al Gore and Tommy
After the conventions, though, I was a little worried. Our kids
may be gung-ho, but the older ones haven't got a clue about
campaign-finance reform, and the youngest wouldn't know George
W. from George of the Jungle. How could we translate their
interest into a true political education? The numbers don't look
good: according to the Federal Election Commission, less than
one-third of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the 1996 presidential
election. If we want our oldest to go to the polls in '08, we
have to get busy.
The candidates' websites aren't much help. Georgewbush.com does
nothing special for children, and Gore's "Just For Kids," a
corner of Algore.com, is a big snore. I can't leave my daughters
unattended at whitehouse.gov: the "Virtual Library" houses 186
mentions of Monica.
What about the bookstores? Beyond the standard fare--like
Washington coloring books--there were a few standouts. Alice
Provensen's The Buck Stops Here is a droll recap, in verse, of
all 42 Presidents. (Tricky Dick's couplet: "Here's Thirty-seven!
Nixon, R./ California's tarnished star.") Judith St. George's So
You Want to Be President? offers such tips as "It might help if
your name is James." The kids' sentimental favorite: When John &
Caroline Lived in the White House.
Entertaining, yes, but serious civics lessons? I'm not so sure.
I called Jeffrey Tulis, a professor of government at the
University of Texas at Austin and author of The Rhetorical
Presidency. He scoffed at the idea of trying to elevate the level
of political discourse in our home. First of all, he said, "young
kids' reaction to politics is much like their reaction to sports
and religion. They just want to know, 'Whom do we root for?'"
Besides, local elections usually mean more to children than
national ones. Tulis' daughter Elizabeth, for instance, now a
college senior, was thrilled when Dad took her out of elementary
school to join then Texas Governor Ann Richards' triumphant
inaugural march in 1991.
Tulis' larger point: if parents act as if politics matters, kids
will pick up on that enthusiasm. The biggest assets in my
education campaign, I realize, are my husband and his mother, a
pair of lifelong political junkies. She indoctrinated him in the
joys of campaign rallies at a tender age, and now shows our kids
the sights of Washington whenever we visit. He campaigned for Mo
Udall in high school, worked for Ed Koch after college and can
usually be found in the den, glued to C-SPAN's Road to the White
I know the kids will be all right. These days our younger
daughter sports a new T shirt, courtesy of Grandma, that reads,
SOMEDAY A WOMAN WILL BE PRESIDENT! Her big sister trades partisan
insults with other sixth-graders, who already identify themselves
as Republicans or Democrats. And their two-year-old brother has
actually been spotted watching C-SPAN. Maybe it's because Dad
left the TV on, but hey, it's a start.
See our website at time.com/personal for more about kids and
politics. You can send e-mail to Eugenie at firstname.lastname@example.org