My 4-year-old daughter, Dina, points to pictures of President Bush and John Kerry in the newspaper. Point blank, she asks me questions with the urgency of a reporter on deadline.
"Who is that man?" she asks. "Who's this man? What do they do? Why are they waving at those people?"
I encourage her to ask questions about the world, but it's not always easy talking with kids about current events these days. How can one make sense of what's happened in the world in recent years? A disputed presidential election, 9/11, a controversial war. What next?
Besides, with two young children, there's always a ready excuse to avoid the rest of the world. Sometimes the news just flashes by in between meals, bedtime stories, chores, playing a game or just about everything else. Several parents have told me recently that they skim a news magazine or scan cable news highlights for a few minutes because that's the only way they can catch up on world events.
Suddenly, with election day almost here, all of that feels like a cop-out. There's something at stake here, and my kids are a big part of it.
I look at the newspaper again and try to explain to my daughter who these guys are and why the upcoming election is important. I want to encourage Dina's curiosity, but also shield her from realities that may trouble her.
"It's very important that parents frame the world for their kids as a place where they can make a difference-and where most people act safely most of the time," says Dr. Joseph Hagan, former chair of the Task Force on Terrorism for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a primary care pediatrician in Burlington, Vt.
Meanwhile, Hagan says we need to understand that our kids are paying attention.
"We often forget that kids are quietly listening in the background when we express our beliefs or watch the news," Hagan says. "Parents need to engage children in a conversation they will understand. Most of all, it's hard to have a child join in a conversation at any point if you're not having that conversation yourself. Less than half of all adults who can vote, do."
I am lucky in one sense. It would be almost impossible for me to avoid talking about the news with my daughter in an election year, even if I tried. The reason is not just that I once stopped goofing off in grade school long enough to pay attention to a red, white and blue civics lesson. It's what happened at home that made a difference: the frequent, spirited and, yes, thoroughly biased chatter about news and politics I heard while growing up seeped into my veins for life.
There were annual holidays in my house, and then there were even more sacred rituals that happened every four years-presidential elections. There must be something really important going on, I figured at an early age. After all, this was the only time I was ever encouraged to stay up until 4 in the morning and watch TV.
I also went to the polls a few times with my dad. I remember how he assured me that all votes are counted and the winner is announced that night. Oh, well-he couldn't be right about everything.
Though never explicitly stated, the message from my parents became clear to me over the years. For them, staying informed about the world was about much more than curiosity or the excitement of a closely contested election. It was their way of saying: "The world is not just about us-or about our kids. It's also about the family on one side of us that has more and the one on the other side that has less. We're all in this together, and we all can have a voice in what happens."
This is not an easy thing to explain to my 4-year-old, especially since she already understands the house she lives in isn't a democracy (anarchy, sometimes).
I tell her that it's good to be curious about the world and to have strong feelings about what you believe-especially if you back them up with reasons. Besides, I say, things that happen today will affect your life many years from now.
I also explain to her that when she gets older, she too will be able to vote. Now, though, voting is my job, and I tell her I will always vote for what I think is best for her and the rest of the world-such as good schools, a safe place for kids to play, a doctor when people need one. I'm not sure how I'll explain to her why issues that affect children are often missing from the radar screen of candidates running for office.
One advocate for citizen education on key issues even suggests that learning about the democratic process is not only an essential part of being a citizen-it's an important step for children as they grow up.
"This is like learning how to drive a car-this is what grown-ups do," says Ruth Wooden, former executive director of the National Parenting Association and president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research organization that aims to help Americans explore and understand critical issues. "That approach actually appealed to my son a lot. It's not just that it's good for you. It's your life-you're going to have to pay taxes, know where your local hospital is."
All of a sudden, election day is almost here. Who knows what will happen? Still, I'm encouraged, and so is my daughter. This year we'll go to the polls together for the first time.
Dan Baron lives in Evanston with his wide and two daughters. You can reach him at [email protected]
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