I usually herd my kids up to bed at 8 o'clock, but a couple of weeks ago I let them stay up past their bedtime to watch President Obama's first official State of the Union address.
I figured they might not absorb his message or be able to quote chapter and verse of his speech, but I just wanted them to hear it - and get a visual sense of what a joint session of Congress accompanied by American pomp and circumstance looks and feels like.
Surprised they were willing? They would happily have watched paint dry as long as they got to stay up late.
But I digress.
I'm a sucker for ceremony. I wanted my children to see history in action, to witness the assemblage of their Congress, as Representatives and Senators (along with the justices of the Supreme Court) all filed into the Chamber of the House of Representatives to hear what our leader had to say.
I also hoped they'd get a kick out of hearing the Sergant-at-Arms of the House of Representatives herald the president's arrival. Custom dictates that he announce the president's entrance into the chamber by saying "Madam (or Mister) Speaker, the President of the United States."
I know, I love a cheap thrill.
I enjoyed pointing out the various people I recognized; including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senator John McCain, and hearing my children identify the people familiar to them, like First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden.
It wasn't long before the novelty wore off, however, and the kids became restless. They wrestled with the dog. Then Holly did cartwheels and Noah wriggled around on the floor doing the 'worm' - but at least they were in the room. Because I wanted them to soak up a civics lesson and didn't want to chase them off, I consciously decided to keep my reprimands to a minimum.
I think it worked. When I thought they'd completely lost interest in the speech, they began to make comments.
Noah noticed that not everyone clapped, including the secret service agents obviously near to the president's podium. And those who clapped didn't always clap at the same time, he observed. He surmised the reasons why which prompted an interesting discussion and inspired Holly to ask her own questions.
"Mom, what's the difference between Republicans and Democrats?" she asked.
I replied that different people will have different opinions about what makes Republicans and Democrats different - and that it's quite a bit more complicated than the fact that they don't like to stand, sit or clap at the same times. I tried to convey my belief (and hope) that while all elected officials begin their political lives moved at least in part by a desire to make our country better for all of us, and sometimes agree in their opinions about how that should be done, there are some issues about which they passionately disagree. (I also volunteered that some elected officials are called "Independent," preferring not to align strictly with one major party or the other.)
Kids are so observant. Their eyes may glaze over when we adults speak, but they sure do pick up on our body language.
"He doesn't look happy," Noah commented, about one senator. I agreed, but was pleased that the this perturbed senator managed not to break from protocol and heckle the president, a la Representative Joe Wilson's (R - SC) "You lie!" shout out during Obama's address to a joint session of Congress last September.
As a Mom, I'm always grateful for those public displays of civil adult disagreement.
The kids are watching, after all.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
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