I talked to a teacher recently who has taught 4th grade for many years, whose students are very curious about the election and how she plans to vote. They form their own opinions much later, she says. At that age,their own political preferences come directly through the parental pipeline.
I started my kids early. Each of them was born during a presidential election year, right in time to join me in the voting booth as infants. I had them punching the ballots as soon as their little hands could grip the metal stylus. And I made sure they knew who we were voting for. In 1992, Alli was 8, and she knew that Bill Clinton could be the first Democratic president of her lifetime. As we waited on the line at the polling place to vote, she looked up and loudly announced in a voice heard across the whole room, “Mommy! Sam’s mom is on the other side. I didn’t think we knew any Republicans!”
Even Daniel, who was 4, joined in our celebration that night when Clinton was elected, and Alli soon became very absorbed in presidential trivia. She memorized the entire list of presidents, in order, and was shocked to learn that although I had majored in American History, I could not get past #7. She made me a presidential mobile with each president’s name dangling by a string from a wire hanger, so I could catch up with what she already knew at 8. (I still have it in my closet. And I still can’t get past #7.)
She also drew Daniel into her obsession. One day she demanded the full attention of her brother (otherwise known as her slave). She sat him down with her at the Barbie doll house and officially renamed Barbie and Ken: they were now and forevermore known as Hillary and Bill. I assure you, at age 4, Daniel knew far more about the family in the White House than most Americans.
When they outgrew White House Barbie, I encouraged their exposure to real life events–although as teenagers, they both seemed a little cynical, and neither had much faith that an individual could make a difference. I felt disappointed to think that my children would not experience the idealism my generation felt in the sixties.
Once they could vote, however, I noticed that they took their responsibility very seriously, and both worked to get other young voters to do the same. This year, Daniel registered voters, while Alli attended Texas caucuses and nearly went as a Hillary delegate to the national convention. Last February on the night of the Potomac primaries, I watched on TV as Obama spoke in Madison and Hillary spoke in El Paso, knowing both of my kids were in their audiences.
As the teacher says, at some point after 4th grade, they began to form their own opinions, rather than swallowing mine along with the meals I fed them every night. And it’s a constant process. Alli’s blog two days ago illustrated how she’s changed from being the teenager who urged me to vote for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore. I was shocked that she feels the slightest bit of solidarity with Sarah Palin, even as part of the military family.
But it doesn’t matter if my kids end up to the right of me or the left of me. What does matter is that they both have a lifetime commitment to be engaged, and involved, as citizens—and I think they will. I am sure my early efforts made some difference, but I don’t think I deserve the credit. I think it’s far more likely that it’s thanks to Ken and Barbie.