As a political scientist, I know about political socialization. People learn first from their families about political values. Kids then talk to their peers in high school and college and learn more. People may have formative experiences occur when we engage with people of different education levels, income brackets, and races/ethnicities. This may also challenge our notions of “values” and politics. Political affiliation or partisanship are strong constructs, though. Your parents’ political affiliations probably influenced yours. Still, while you are unlikely to dramatically change your opinions on fundamental political tenets (capitalism vs. socialism or liberalism vs. conservatism), you may move slightly as you learn more as you meet more people. I evaluate policies for a living. For me, when new evidence is available, I may change my opinions about policy. Political life is just that- life. It is a living, breathing quest for answers that many of us who are politically literate engage with. Even our kids are involved in this as they grow.
So, when I hear people say “let’s not make this about politics” or “I refuse to involve my kid in politics”, I kinda tilt my head to the side a little confused. I get it. You want your kid to grow up a free thinker. I do, too. But that’s not how it really works. Shielding your kid from age-appropriate discussions of policy will not make them more intellectually curious. It won’t teach them how to respectfully disagree with others. And it won’t clearly represent what your family’s values are.
Everything is political. Right now, I’m sitting here watching the news following the Las Vegas shooting thinking to myself “why do we keep letting this happen?” Here, locally, there were two shootings in the last week (one near campus where I work) and then two armed men showed up at a local high school very near to where I work. I worry about things. All parents do. I doubt you would find a single human who thought this was “normal” or a boring news day. Still, people go “don’t make this about politics” when people are dying. I personally want to scream into the silence going “but there are policies which could help”. If a bridge collapsed due to a lack of regulations killing 50+ people, we’d be like, “we need better regulations”, right? Everything is political.
How is it possible that we could talk with our children about this? Well, start by explaining the issue when they ask. Say “some people worry about how much access people have to guns” or “some people believe better background checks would keep people safer”. These aren’t value judgments. They are statements. If my child asks me what gun policies are effective, I will probably give her a comparative public policy lecture she’d rather not have but at least she will be informed. I also think it is defensible to say, “your father and I think it is important that those people who have guns go through background checks”. Or, our line here in the Midwest where guns are ubiquitous, “Firearms should always be locked out of the hands of children and visitors and we feel guns should be strongly regulated.”
You can also explain why other people feel differently. I might say, “You have an uncle who hunts and doesn’t like regulations for x because y”. You do not need to affirm those beliefs or say “these are valid” even if you feel these views are not valid. But you do have a duty if you want to raise a kid who respects people and reason to answer their “political” questions. After all, many of your children go to public school. Most will drive on public roads. Most were born in hospitals that received federal funding. If we are saying “let’s not talk about politics”, we will have to leave out school board discussions, the importance and implications of taxes on roads and transit, and health policy. You all know how I feel about that last one. It’s not left out at our house.
It is also acceptable to say my favorite line, “Policies are complicated. You often have to choose the best solution out of a bunch of bad ones.” I used to say this to my undergrads during every public policy lecture. I usually talked with them about topics on minority representation, gun policy, health policy, and sometimes marijuana legalization. There are no “easy” solutions to solve the pension crisis. There is good and bad to any policy. Saying to your child “I don’t have all the answers” or “This may help these people but disadvantage others so people are protesting” is fair. Nothing about saying “I don’t know” is bad – especially if “I don’t know” is then followed up by “But let’s see if we can’t learn more about it”. That’s keeping your kid curious, being honest, and teaching them important life skills. You can’t make choices without knowledge so you better learn where to find it. This could be a lesson in where to find legitimate news, too. Sources matter. Older kids could benefit from a short political communication discussion in sources and bias but rarely get that from home – even school -by the time they should have an idea about it.
That’s still “being political”, though. Because we are all, whether we want to admit it, political animals. Even if we don’t vote or go to rallies. We still have opinions about taxes, medical care, etc. I know people have issues with kids attending rallies. I have concerns for safety depending on the rally or protest that may lead me to stay home rather than bring my especially young kid. However, that is a choice every family should be allowed to make. I don’t advocate people putting kids in danger or using them as props, personally. I regularly see very small kids – toddlers – being used here outside of Planned Parenthood in similar ways. They are sat down right by the very busy road with minimal supervision and it makes me nervous. One step and they are in traffic. I’ve heard about people losing their kids at protests with no plans for a “meeting point” or to seek out a first responder who can help. Kids that young, unless you are baby wearing them, are probably not old enough to remain safe should you get separated (a very real possibility) and are too young to understand, care, or consent to attending. Consent matters. Otherwise, it’s indoctrination.
Again, it’s up to you, but no one should risk their kid’s safety for their own desire to protest. And, allowing your kid to choose whether they want to participate is an important step in teaching them that they have a voice. While you can advocate for your family’s values and present the evidence, only your child can decide what they want to do. If you really want to raise an insightful, thinking kid, you need to accept that their opinions won’t always support yours. That’s hard.
But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Few people are toting their small kids to protests. How do I know this? Well, a very small minority of people actually protest. There are not droves and droves of kids protesting everywhere from what I see. So, when we say things like “let’s not get political”, we’re saying that we don’t believe kids deserve to be armed with information about public policy and make up their own minds about issues.
I always found this patronizing when I was a kid. My parents were active in local civic communities. While my mom would say she’s not all that political, she recently protested the confederate flag in her adopted homestate of South Carolina. My dad has always been interested in politics. He and my mom do not agree on everything. Growing up, they represented two political parties. I grew up not confused but curious. And my political beliefs changed significantly when I left my rather privileged whitebread world and started working with inner-city elementary kids who couldn’t afford to have Thanksgiving Dinner. I started studying health policy and here we are. Growing up, we didn’t agree on everything but I knew what our family’s values were. We were pro-equality. We believed taxes served a purpose. Racism was never acceptable. Women did not deserve lower wages than men. Biology classes should teach science. Prayer did not belong in schools regardless of how we dealt with it in our home lives. We loved public education. These were things we could all see were family values.
Honestly, I hate getting into political discussions anymore off the job and out of our house. I do it all day. I don’t want to come home and have to teach a class that no one will respect. You see, as a political scientist, people often ask you questions wanting answers. The problem is your empirical answers don’t support their political opinions and then the ad hominem attacks begin. It’s frustrating. But if my kid was to ask me a question, I would gladly give her an appropriate answer. We discuss politics and policy a lot at home. That’s normal, I think, even if we don’t frame it deliberately as such.
Out in public, that changes. I was taught you don’t just bring up politics with everyone. I found this hard to understand because, to me, politics were an indication of who you thought deserved to have what (and that is basically it, still). My mom told me it was okay to tell someone to go pound sand or to call someone out if they were being racist or sexist because they started it, basically, but that there were just fights you didn’t need to start over polite conversation. This is why I tend to avoid these topics in public but it’s a matter of personal preference. And, to be honest, it has taken me years and years to come around to to this.
You also have a responsibility to teach your kids how to have a respectful discussion when you do begin to discuss these issues with those outside the home. My mom let me know what respectful boundaries were. She always seemed to preface things in ways like “some people may think” or “some people feel” but still made it clear why she felt a certain way. She didn’t tell us how to think. She did warn us about the implications of going off on a tangent. The goal, in my opinion, is to let your kids see you walk away from a discussion that has descended into ad hominem attacks and to also allow them to see you exchanging ideas with someone you don’t agree with in a respectful manner. That doesn’t mean every topic will have an acceptable “other side”. Like my mom said, sexism and racism are unacceptable. Your kid should feel empowered to call that out if she feels safe and should feel supported in that.
It’s all about walking a fine line. Still, not teaching kids these things leads to a populace that doesn’t care about policy or science and can’t have a reasonable discourse about any issue. Ignoring politics will not make your kid a better citizen or make them a free-thinker. In order to move forward in a world of angry (and often uninformed) social media, you have to teach kids skills in social discourse. This is political but it’s not bad. And as your kids leave your house more and more, they will encounter friends whose parents don’t agree with your views. I shudder to think sometimes about the trials and tribulations that face our kids. It’s hard because, as an academic, you often do live a sheltered life. It’s a bizarre life we don’t like to admit we lead because we are real people. Still, our worldview so different from the average townie here. I need to arm my kid with the social skills to approach problems respectfully when it’s called for while still remaining true to herself. If that’s “political”, so be it. At least she will be informed.