Life Lessons for Kids Learned From the Presidential Race

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I was raised, and am raising my three kids, in Washington, DC. I visited the Carter White House routinely as a kid. My children all groan when traffic is stopped for the Vice President’s motorcade. The whole family is on a first name basis with Malia Obama’s Secret Service detail.

You’d think my kids and I would talk politics all the time as a result. But mostly, the opposite is true. Probably because we take politics for granted, too often I overlook opportunities to engage my kids in national debates and commentary. I often assume the subject is too complex, too divisive, too exasperating, or too boring for them.

This is a mistake – a jaded, and overly adult view of politics. One secret weapon to parenting is to always look at life from your kids’ viewpoint. And the current presidential election offers too many parenting talking points to pass up; no matter your political affiliation, you can talk about this race without delving into any of the divisive or enraging bitterness among the candidates or voters.

Here you go:

The magic of never giving up. Ted Cruz won the Iowa Caucus when polls and nearly everyone, most especially Donald Trump, had relegated him to second, third, or last place in history. Cruz triumphed by believing stubbornly in himself, by not giving up, and maybe even by simply getting lucky. Doesn’t matter – he won. Last-minute voters supported him, proving the limits of advance polls and negativity. Just like Cruz, I want my kids to dream big, to work hard for their goals, and to, as American novelist Winston Churchill famously said, “Never, ever ever ever ever give up.” Cruz’s surprise victory in Iowa shows kids the value of hanging tough.

How to disagree with dignity and respect. Many high schools have fazed out “debate” as an in-school or afterschool activity. Friend-groups on social media shield us from differing views. Bullying presents an extreme and abhorrent way to criticize someone. Movies (and headlines) feature characters who kill each other instead of talking out their differences.

As a result, many kids don’t know how to disagree with their friends or family with tenacity, logic, and civility. All of the debates offer good lessons, but in particular, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton show kids how two smart, passionate adults can duke it out, with anger and ambition, but without vitriol.

The pros and cons of disparate fighting styles. A political “race” is, at its core, a competition — a fight. Different politicians approach the battle differently. Donald Trump is brash, direct, inflammatory; he goes for direct hits. Jeb Bush is wonky and deliberate, trying to use facts and intellect to make his opponents look shallow and uncontrolled. Bernie Sanders has mastered the art form of looking like he’s not really trying, which makes him particularly lethal. Hillary Clinton, as a woman, has to adhere to a vague, but strictly enforced, societal code of acceptable ways for a woman to do battle.

Conceding defeat gracefully. We tend to focus relentlessly on teaching kids the importance of winning, of getting A’s, and scoring a buzzer beater to win the game. But it’s harder, and arguably more important, to teach our children to lose gracefully, without giving up on their longterm goals or self-confidence. Ambitious politicians need to handle defeat far more often than victory; there will be only one winner in this presidential race, after all.

Hillary Clinton gave an eloquent concession speech to Barack Obama in 2008 – and then went to work for him as Secretary of State and is now running again. After the Iowa results came in, Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley bowed out tactfully, while indicating his concession is temporary. Even Donald Trump managed to acknowledge his second place finish in Iowa with warmth and humility. All good lessons for our children.

Why do politicians chose different strategies? Which style would each child choose? How would you handle defeat in front of millions? Which politician is most effective right now, and why?

Let’s not dismiss or avoid politics with our kids, at the dinner table or in the car or wherever we come together. Even if your children seem unaware of or uninterested in politics, there lie unique opportunities for candid, illuminating discussion of life lessons hidden in the drama enfolding on our national stage. Parenting opportunities lurk everywhere, even in presidential debates.

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