During the Jimmy Carter/Gerald Ford presidential contest in 1976, my chic DC parents threw one of their many chic DC dinner parties. I was helping mom (who was wearing a pink and orange halter top and matching skirt) just as the guests were about to arrive.
“Turn around that trash can!” Mom told me in a panic. There was a red, white and blue presidential bumper sticker on our plastic TV room can. The patriotic color scheme clashed with her outfit, but that’s not what alarmed her.
“I don’t want anyone to see who we are voting for,” she said, as if it were obvious. I did what she said. I can’t even remember if the bumper sticker was for Ford or Carter. But for days afterwards, I wondered why we had to hide whatever our political leanings were from my parents’ closest friends.
For many of our kids, the current presidential election is their first presidential election – or at least the first one they will remember. What they see – and how they see us reacting to this election – may shape their political sensibilities forever. Perhaps this is a chilling reality for you. For me, it is too – but it’s also a great parenting opportunity.
Yes, this presidential race is bizarre. At times it’s been ugly and embarrassing, regardless of political ideology. Seen through a child’s eyes, the public fighting, lying, bullying, name calling, and bad behavior is confusing, at best. How can adults act this way? Any kindergarten teacher would put most of today’s politicians in time outs.
But the upside is that the widespread media coverage – on TV, radio, splashed across the Internet – makes for an opportunity to engage kids in political debate, to create awareness and involvement in politics that may last their entire lives. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been filling stadiums and causing record lines with potential voters. Many of this year’s primaries and caucuses set records for voter participation. The same kind of engagement can work with our kids, for their and our country’s good, if we can put ourselves in our kids’ shoes today.
Our biggest tool here is also the one the candidates try to manipulate and exploit – and the one we parents usually fear most. That Internet again, followed shortly by TV, radio, and newspapers – the media overall. All media outlets are in essence simply communication vehicles. So, instead of banning the Internet, turning off the TV, or cursing a candidate’s radio commercial, first ask your kids what they think. Start small: ask them to name today’s presidential politicians. Can they recap a few points the candidates are trying to make? What do they think of the insults, the wife-comparison, the name-calling?
It doesn’t matter how or where you do this. The dinner table, the car ride to school, the nightly tuck in. What matters is that you show that you care what they think. The best way to do so is to listen to their answers. It’s important to respect kids’ views, not to dominate them. Ask them why politicians would act this way. Get them engaged in debate and rhetoric.
The media has become not only an incredible messaging engine for today’s politicians to yoke and exploit, but a parental asset for us to harness. Show your kids Politico’s “Truth o Meter” and “Pants on Fire” fact-checkers. Watch Internet videos such as Obama v. Trump debate style. Put on the endless town halls and political debates, whether or not you think your kids are watching.
Because long after the primaries, long after this reality-show-election is over, our kids – and their collective votes over time — will be more influential than whomever wins the 2016 election. It’s up to us to engage them in their own future as best we can right now.