Monday, July 03, 2006

Politics and kids

My 15-year-old daughter CB likes to talk about politics. She discusses and argues politics with friends and relatives, in her classes at school, as well as online.

From her first forays into cyberspace (in "Sims Online") politics has been part of her online interactions with others. She's had online run-ins with Republicans from all over the country in Sims and then later via her blog and instant-messaging. And since she and her friends have friends in other places who then check out each others' blogs and IM each other, she's talked politics with all kinds of people.

Sometimes at the political blogs and discussion boards I frequent someone asks, what is the appropriate age to start talking to children about politics? I am always blown away when some people give ages from ten and older, or even moreso when they say you shouldn't talk to kids about politics because they should be able to make up their own minds!

When this question comes up, I jump right in and tell them that you need to be talking politics with your kids from the youngest age, and certainly by the time they are in kindergarten.

As progressive parents my wife and I felt strongly that we needed to start early on to explain our values and worldview to our children, and to teach them to defend and be proud of their views. We felt that, especially in our society, where media and public discourse tends to denigrate progressive, humanist values, it was important to start as early as possible.

Another way of looking at it is that we need to start explaining the world and how it works to our kids at an early age.

Of course people have no problem doing that when it comes to plants and animals, stars and planets. But for some reason, when it comes to politics, some people don't see it as important. But it is vital.

It's important to teach our kids our values, what's right and what's wrong. We explain to our kids that it's right to help people who are in need. We explain that people are less well off not because they are bad people, but because of the structure of our economy, racism and classism, and the realities of personal circumstances.

We teach our kids that it's wrong to treat people badly just because they are different. Those of us who are white have to teach our kids that the system is stacked to their advantage whether they realize it or not.

Just as important as passing on our values is how we do it. The most important thing we can teach our kids is to think creatively and critically, and to question authority.

So one of the first lessons we taught our kids is that you don't obey someone just because they have authority. You need to understand what their goal is, why they are asking you to do something, and how they are asking you.

It's helped that our kids' teachers tended to use participatory kinds of classroom management, where the kids themselves set the rules of the classroom (with teacher guidance) and discussed why it's important for everyone to obey the rules. And kids have to understand that in some situations they will have to just obey.

But this relationship to authority at the personal level lays the groundwork for kids to think critically about political leaders, for them to question the things that political leaders and other authority figures tell us, to not just accept at face value the words of our presidents and other leaders. It also means we have to explain our choices to them.

What also matters is how to talk about politics. My kids knew that George Bush would be a bad president from the very beginning. Not because George Bush is a bad person (he may or may not be), but because the policies that have come to dominate the Republican Party and conservative movement, of which he is the head, are diametrically opposed to our values. This is not a simplistic, "Republicans are bad." Rather, it's about values and priorities.

We explain to our kids that we value fairness and justice, and that unfortunately conservatives pursue policies that are the opposite of that by defending the interests of the wealthy rather than the poor. We give them specific examples -- the recent refusal to raise the minimum wage at the same time as the Republican dominated Congress tries to give itself a $3,000 raise and cuts taxes for the very wealthiest of the wealthy are cases in point. We explain why some people support Bush on these policies -- for wealthy people who are concerned mostly about their own short term material well-being, it might be a logical choice. For others, it's more complicated.

Of course beyond economic justice issues are also social issues, and here too we have explained to our kids from early ages that many people in our society are very intolerant of particular kinds of people, including people who are not white, people who are not Christian, people who are not straight. This intolerance comes in part because they don't know people who are different. For my kids, this is maybe the hardest thing to understand.

We explain why it is so important for there to be a strong separation between church and state, how such separation was meant originally to protect religious people, and how it now protects everyone regardless of belief or nonbelief.

It's hard to understand why people would support some of these conservative policies, and the politicians who are pushing them. It's hard to understand why some grandparents and uncles and aunties support them. So we explain that people disagree about politics in part because they have different values and priorities and beliefs. We explain, for example, that some people believe that the market should decide everything and that government is bad. We explain that such people think that the price you pay in such a system -- poverty, for example -- is worth the overall benefit. We explain that people have different beliefs and values. And we explain that sometimes it's better not to argue about politics (with grandfather, for example).

I should add the obvious: explaining politics to a kindergartner is different than discussing it with a ninth grader. But kindergartners fully understand concepts such as fairness and unfairness, they know about sharing, about treating others as you would like to be treated. They know about being trusting, and being tricked. They understand bullying and greediness, and that those things are wrong. They fully understand enough of the world that they can understand the basics of politics and political values.

Of course talking about politics is just one part of the story. Kids also are sensitive to whether you walk the walk. But I think that explaining why we do what we do, and why others disagree, is an important foundation.

In general, CB's run-ins with conservatives drive her a bit crazy. But she is very good at keeping her cool and having rational arguments. Just last week she had a discussion with a teen blogger who is very much against legalized abortion. CB has also had heated political discussions in her classes, and with one of her uncles. I have to say I was very proud that she really held her own against him -- I think he was really shocked that a mere 14-year old was able to explain so clearly and articulately her position and to critique his.

More recently she's having IM and email run-ins over racism with a self-described "liberal" cousin her age who lives in a Conservative Southern State. I should add that while my 12-year old son BK is not quite as into political discussions as his big sister, he has stood up to friends who gay-bash, explaining why that is wrong. And both of them have come with me to demonstrations: BK was with me at the local anti-war march in the fall of 2002, and CB came with me to the more recent local march in support of immigrants.

When my kids take political stands, when they stand up for what they know is right, they make me so proud to be their dad.

Cross posted at daddychip2


etbnc said...

Good for you!

Clearly understanding our own values makes it so much easier to live by them. Learning that early probably will save your kids considerable frustration later.

Have you read George Lakoff's political books, Don't Think of an Elephant, or Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think ? Since you understand "that values stuff" already, you might not be surprised by Lakoff's work, but you might find some helpful information about those other common value frameworks we encounter.


Granny said...

My 3 great-granddaughters go to our weekly vigil with me, each with their little candle.

They go to our PFLAG meeting and to our local They know exactly what I believe.

At the same time, we are members of a mainstream Protestant church which shares most of our values.

It's possible to be both.

Chip said...

etbnc, thanks. It really is about values, yes, I'm familiar with Lakoff's books. I think in talking with kids you have to be concrete, which is why specific values have to be the focus, and links to specific kinds of policies, in terms they already are familiar with.

granny, that's great, exactly what we all should be doing. And yes, I know that many christian churches do focus on the issues of social justice and peace that are central to Christian teachings. It's great you've found such a church.

Anonymous said...

You should have seen the fire storm I stirred up, especially with a motisorri (I think I misspelled that) teacher when I insisted just as you did that one should explain ones views but not indoctrinate ones children and that children are capable of beginning to understand the foundations of government at an early age. I think it was at Echidne or pandagon. These folks insisted I had no idea what I was talking about and basically called me a liar when I described my experiences as a child in CA and my daughter's facination with the democratic primaries that included Paul Simon (she was 4).

Children need to be taught what we believe and why. They need to understand how our governing systems are organized and learn why we have them organized that way, what their foundations are.

Even if my children decided to be conservative (God forbid!), I will know they did so with some understanding of what they are deciding.