A More United Politics
Politics Isn’t All Bad and Your Kids Should Know It
Politics and Parenting
As a part of an interdisciplinary series looking to restore a sense of unity in the U.S. after a fractious election period I was asked to give a set of answers to the prompt, What are 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country? After giving my list of 5, this expanded into a longer interview intended for a general audience on Thrive Global. Ever the academic, I concluded that giving a list is a start, but that an expansion would be better. Over the next few weeks I plan to give a more detailed, and research rooted set of justifications for each step. To start, here is the first one:
Don’t speak of all politics or government as dirty or bad.
The stories we tell matter. Imagine a world where told our children that all astronauts were egomaniacs, all doctors were cheats, or all teachers were liars. We probably wouldn’t have a bunch of precocious 5 year olds thinking about those careers when asked what they want to be when they grow up.
Pew has been tracking trends in institutional trust for a long time and for awhile there has been increasing distrust of the basic institutions and authority figures in charge of different parts of government. For many parents those feelings may be real and undeniable, but in airing only the negative views — which we and our media sources tend to focus on — we make it so that children won’t desire life in public office from a very early age.
When we talk bad about institutions or actors, trust in those institutions and actors declines. That breeding ground of mistrust contributes to violent anti-government behaviors, and even poses a threat to the practice of democracy. This is not to say that criticism ought not be a part of any political discussion, but rather that we ought to be equally willing to emphasize political successes or even good maintenance with our children if we want to instill some sort of faith in the system.
Think about how sports would be different if all we focused on was how much we hated specific players or coaches from other teams, rather than the celebratory fandom that characterizes most college and major leagues. We don’t find and tell stories to root for in politics, but we could. And this part is one where parents of different political view points will pick different heroes to share with their kids, but the focus on the good versus on the bad can go a long way in righting our current discourse.
The solution cannot be to just not talk to our children about politics, for the vey basic reason that — like sex and drugs — they’ll hear about it anyway. But also importantly, not talking about politics and government or only expressing the negative sides with our children leaves them ill-equipped and underprepared to face the realities they will as agents of change when they become voting eligible. It robs us of a time to reflect and modify our own views by hearing their perspectives. It makes the machinery of politics harder to operate because not enough people have a working knowledge of how things are set up.
A better strategy is to introduce children to their city council people and other local elected officials. Encourage them to write to their state and federal officials. Let them get to know the people that are working for our collective good, even if you don’t share all of the same views. By connecting that there are individual people doing that work, we can break the idea that politics is somehow an untouchable or unspeakable force. Of course, none of our children will be political carbon copies of ourselves, and some will hold different view points, but by fostering an environment that accepts or even promotes a discourse of political hope can be of benefit to us all in the form of a more engaged society.
Politics can have frustrating or even maddening elements, but if our children only hear are our complaints, we start to subtly dissuade them from asking and learning more about politics. Doing this gives a negative impression to our children and means those who might be great at facing our collective problems are discouraged from entering the field. We don’t have to know all the answers as parents, we never will. But politics and government only gets better when people care and see the enterprise as worthwhile. Children internalize — and on average follow — our religious values, economic behaviors, and literacy behaviors, and to some extent our political behaviors. But perhaps most importantly, children and parents who engage in intentional discussions about specific topics tend to come away from those topics with greater knowledge.
We do not all have to agree on political end points, we do not all have to love one another in order for our system to work. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to be willing to focus on and speak about some of the good in our system.