Navigating the election season with kids

My 5-year-old son is sitting at the kitchen table cheering for Barack Obama. I kind of wish he wouldn’t. Not that Obama isn’t my preferred candidate, but my son’s only reason for supporting him is that I told him I was doing so. After rolling my eyes at people who pick their candidates for superficial reasons, I have a son who is blindly following my choice.

I have tried to be even-handed when talking about the candidates to him. I lean pretty far left myself, but I also hate brainwashing of any sort. I know my son is not going to be making any truly informed decisions at his age, but I’m hoping to give him a sense that electing our government requires some thought.

Barack Obama and John McCain are both running for president, I told him. One of the great things about our country, I added, is that each person gets to vote for the candidate he or she wants. Whoever gets the most votes wins, I say, making a mental note to explain the electoral college and hanging chads when he’s a little older.

I am not against sharing my opinions, however, and did tell him that I want Obama to win because I think he has better ideas about how to make our country better for everyone. I noted, though, that some people think this of John McCain — figuring I had to teach him how to walk the walk of tolerance here. I believe there is little value in establishing an “us” and “them” mentality about politics when there are at least as many degrees of Democrats and Republicans as there are points on the Kinsey scale. Our family is friends with some gay Republicans, for example. We might not agree on politics, but I don’t want my son thinking they are bad people. That kind of divisiveness is never beneficial.

Here he is, however, chanting, “O-ba-ma,” like he’s at a rally, after my mention of an election night party with some friends set him off. Part of it, I think, is that he sees very little difference between the election and Major League Baseball. We did let ourselves slip into indoctrination when it came to sports, decking him out in our team’s gear starting when he was an infant. He knows our family all roots for the same team, and he has applied this principle to politics.

Politics is not baseball, however — or is it? There sometimes seems little difference between the cheering crowds at an election rally and those at a ball game. If my son sees his politics no differently than his sports affiliations, he is perhaps not so out of step with much of the electorate.

On the negative side of the sports analogy, the McCain campaign’s ads are stooping to a kind of trash talk that would put many athletes to shame. We don’t watch enough television when my son is awake for him to have seen any of these ads, but I wonder about their impact on children in general. How many parents are simultaneously teaching their children that the presidential office is the highest in the land, to be respected and perhaps aspired to, while also explaining why the candidates are saying such awful things about each other? I don’t want to sugarcoat the world for my son, but sometimes it is difficult to explain the foibles of grownups without resorting to oversimplified good-person/bad-person labels.

I think, too, about LGBT parents in California who have to explain the “Yes On Prop 8” ads to their children. How do you tell your children why some people want to ban “King & King,” a picture book you have in your home and which depicts a family like yours? How do you tell children there are some people who do not want their parents to be married? Prop 8 supporters tell us to “think of the children,” but they are not thinking of ours, only theirs — and I have yet to see any proven harm done to children of opposite-sex parents when they find out that same-sex couples exist and can marry.

In discussing politics with our children, then, must we choose between making it seem like sports or delving into the depths of deception, innuendo and prejudice that underlie so much of this election season? How can we convey the essential goodness of our democratic system without condoning those, like the Yes on 8 folks, who seek to use it to promote fear and hate?

The answer, I believe, is not to rush things. If my son wants to cheer Obama for no other reason than he sees me cheering too, so be it. He’ll develop his own opinions as time goes on. All I can do is try to instill the best values I know, and hope they help him navigate through the spin and bluster he will encounter as he gets older.

Most of all, I want to avoid making politics seem remote and boring, having nothing to do with his life. Our system would fall apart entirely if we raise a generation of apathetic voters. This means our son will be watching with us as the election results come in, at least until his bedtime. I’ll explain what is happening as best I can. We might even have some peanuts and Cracker Jack alongside.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian, a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents. Her column appears monthly.

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