Our kids don’t need to know yet about all of life’s twists and turns, hopes and heartaches. But I can’t help but feel a little pride when my daughter rattles off the names of the candidates or gives her opinion of each member of the line-up.
“So Hillary Clinton won last night for the Democrats,” I told my 5-year-old daughter.
“So she’s our next president?”
“No, we still don’t know who will be our next president. The two parties—Republicans and Democrats, remember?” She nodded. “They are still choosing the person they want to run for president. Later, in November, the whole country will choose between those two people. It’s going to be a pretty long time until that happens.”
“Oh, great,” she said with a roll of her eyes. But then she proceeded to list out the names of all the people still in the running.
“Wow,” I said. “I’m impressed you know all those people! Who would you vote for if you could vote?”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Because she’s cool.”
My husband and I have been talking politics with our daughter pretty regularly over the past few months. We have not overtly shared with her our party leanings or our candidate preferences—she hasn’t asked, and we aren’t trying to carbon copy ourselves, after all. Her own preferences have changed—once, Trump was “silly”; later, Carson was “funny”; lately, Clinton is “cool.” She once told me she thought that Democrats were “smart.” It’s tough to know exactly how her impressions are formed, though I know that a Bad Lip Reading of the first Republican debate was perhaps entirely responsible for her affection for Carson. She loves The Late Show with Stephen Colbert—which I usually watch day-old; I’m the mother of young children, after all—and she knows the call sign for our local NPR station (though she misreads the pretentiously named “Radio IQ” as “Radio 10”).
A few months back, my husband shared one of our daughter’s political pronouncements on Facebook: “Donald Trump is silly. You can’t be silly if you want to be the president.” Some of his friends responded with jubilation, “Smart kid!” or “From the mouths of babes…” But others lamented that she knew Donald Trump’s name at all.
An article titled “Simplifying Childhood May Protect Against Mental Health Issues” has been showing up repeatedly on my Facebook page over the last week. At first, I scrolled past it, a little worried, truth be told, about how it might challenge the ways my husband and I engage in conversation with our daughter and our 2-year-old son. (Our son also loves Colbert, though I’m not sure his love or attention extends much beyond the dozens of vehicles featured in the opening credits.) Today, when I saw the article posted by two more friends whose outlooks on the world I respect, I read it.
The article details how our children’s worlds differ from past generations. “Modern day children are exposed to a constant flood of information, which they can’t process or rationalize. They’re growing up faster as we put them into adult roles and increase our expectations of them.” In some ways, the article did challenge the conversations we have at our house. Offering strategies for simplifying kids’ lives, it said: “We don’t talk about global warming at the dinner table with a 7-year-old. We watch the news after our kids are asleep.”
But the article also encouraged unstructured playtime, quiet at home, freedom from constant noise and information. So I relaxed a little: My kids don’t have iPads; when we’re all in the car together, we listen to Miles Davis and The Beatles and Katy Perry more than we listen to “Radio 10”; and as I write this, I can hear the kids in the next room playing a game that has something to do with babies and bodily functions—a game I’m certain my husband did not initiate. I’m not saying thoughtful parents can’t give their children tablets, or listen to tech podcasts, or orchestrate play. I’m only saying I was comforted to recognize that we do give our children space and simplicity in some ways—some ways that I might not have even recognized—and that maybe a little balance will cover over a multitude of over-sharing sins.
So what about politics? My daughter did tell me once, a month or so ago, about the presidential candidates, “Mom, I don’t want to talk about those people ever again.”
I told her I could understand that feeling, that sometimes I feel that way too, but that her dad and I would probably still be talking about it a lot for a while. “We don’t have to talk about it with you, though, if you don’t want us to.”
She thought about that for a minute. “OK, but when you and Dad talk about it, can you go in your room or something?”
Surely one metric of how much to share our country’s sometimes-nightmarish political situation with our daughter is her own feelings about it. If she’s sick of it, it’s definitely time to back off. So we did. But her interest returned. One morning at the bus stop, when I told her it was our state’s turn to vote in the primary, she gasped with excitement.
“Can I go?” she asked. I told her that her dad and I were going to go right after she got on the bus. Her eagerness wasn’t dampened. “So what will you do? Tell me about it.” So I did.
I don’t think of myself as much of a patriot. Though I love our country and am grateful to be a citizen, Independence Day has never been one of my favorite holidays, and I get more than a little uncomfortable at all of the “best country on earth” rhetoric that flies around with a fervor, especially during election season. Still, if I am ever a patriot, it is on election days. “Democracy is sexy,” a friend of mine told me years ago, and I quote her every year. When I research offices and candidates, then go stand in line and cast my ballot, I feel the thrill of having a place in this wild American experiment called democracy. I am invigorated by the small role I get—a role I didn’t buy or earn—in choosing how our political worlds will impact people’s lives. I get to help turn the wheel, to exert my tiny bit of force, to try to steer our society toward what seems most just, most compassionate, most whole. It’s sexy.
We don’t deck our kids out in red, white, and blue. We’ve never bought even one Old Navy flag T-shirt in July. We haven’t gone to see fireworks in years (for the same reasons I never watch Colbert live). But this is the patriotism I want to give them: the thrill of responsibility, the weight of their own voices, the coolest stickers they’ll ever wear. Of course it’s not ever this pure—my husband and I treat the election like reality show entertainment as much as anyone. But in the middle of the absurdity, the noise, the overindulgence, there is something I do want to pass to our children: the simplicity of one vote, the simplicity of majority, the complexity of 320 million people who each get a vote, the complexity—the wild, mind-numbing, mind-opening, sexy complexity—of making life with people who aren’t you.
No, our kids don’t need to know yet about all of life’s twists and turns, hopes and heartaches. Maybe we should shield them for a little longer. But I can’t help but feel a little pride when my daughter rattles off the names of the candidates or gives her opinion of each member of the line-up. She’s learning what it means to be part of a whole, how to value the voice she has, how to pick up her power to make and remake the world. Maybe, come November, we’ll even get up extra early so we can take her with us to the polls before school. But only if she wants to, only if we haven’t totally burned her out. Only if she hasn’t chastised us again and sent us, whispering excitedly, back to our room.
Shea Tuttle is a writer living in central Virginia. Her work has previously appeared at The Toast and The Other Journal.