by David Warnick
Do you want to raise your children with a proper view of politics? For that matter, what is a proper view of politics?
After the elections are over, we can get on with the important task of teaching our children what politics is really about. Reinventing government is our year-round privilege.
My high school government teacher (whom I respected deeply, even though I disagreed with him frequently) gave this normal but unfortunate definition of politics: deciding who gets how much of what, when.
Our founding fathers wouldn’t have recognized that definition. They were deeply practical men-and principled. No, they saw politics as the art of insuring order and opportunity-for everyone.
One year of high school government class and the nightly news may be insufficient to whet your children’s appetite for their marvelous opportunity to “be citizens.” Here are a few suggestions about how to expand their diet.
CONFRONT YOUR OWN CYNICISM
Most Americans are cynical about politicians and “the system.” But that won’t help the next generation change things, so each of us needs to take up another approach.
Of course, cynicism can often be justified, because so many people in politics are just like us! Precisely because the founding fathers understood that each of us is inclined to be selfish and want our own way, the United States’ governmental structure builds in safeguards on any one person’s power.
But no structure can safeguard us indefinitely. In the end, each of us has to be “self-governing”-able to direct our own lives in the right way, and control our own tongue.
RESPECT THE OFFICE, EVEN WHEN YOU CAN’T RESPECT THE OFFICE-HOLDER
My parents wisely taught me this. They were actively involved citizens and held strong opinions about political decisions, but they always made a distinction between criticizing the person who was governor (or whatever) and the office itself. It’s safest to criticize policies-and only when you can offer alternatives.
Talk show hosts can subtly change the way we talk, and while they may be great entertainers, their approach doesn’t train our children in respect. We need to guard our lips from expressing disgust and disrespect that slanders a whole system.
“Having an argument” is a negative these days because disrespect is implied. What we should seek is an atmosphere where our children can discuss and disagree about politics (even with us!) without it being a trauma.
POLITICIANS ARE PEOPLE, AFTER ALL
When my son was just four years old I found out the mayor of our city held open office hours once a week. So I took him down to meet the mayor.
Take advantage of opportunities like that to remind yourself and your children that politicians are people-and they’re much more approachable than you might expect. When you do meet them, be bold to go beyond small talk and actually bring up an issue you care about.
CLEAR THINKING IS RARE
In all my political experience, the rarest attribute isn’t “honesty” so much as clear thinking. Helping your children to learn to think clearly is the best thing you can do to help them understand politics. Here are some ideas:
- Get them involved in debate team at school.
- Have them take a logic course (if your school doesn’t train in this area, take the time to find a book on it).
- Teach them how to evaluate statistics. (This can apply to commercial advertising as well as political communication.)
- Sit down with them and watch a political speech together and talk about it.
- Read several letters to the editor and talk about them.
DON’T GO WITH THE CROWD…
Politics will change as some people “stand up and are counted.” Training a child not to succumb to peer pressure carries over into the political realm. We don’t want our children voting for “winners”-but standing up for what’s right.
At the local level-the sewer board, the library trustees, the school district-so few people are involved that just by “showing up” (whether at a meeting or making an appointment to talk to a board member) you can have great impact. And getting up close helps destroy cynicism.
Just saying “get involved” falls on deaf ears without a follow-up question: Do you think it’s worth it? Obviously your children will learn the most about politics, and gain their own view and appreciation of it, if you try your hand at it. Whether it’s calling into a radio talk show or showing up for a city council meeting, have your children along.
David Warnick has been a campaign manager, aide to a U.S. Congressman, and has worked for a state legislature. He enjoys teaching children and adults on culture and politics. He currently serves on the staff of large church in Kansas City, where he lives with his wife and five children.