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Parents Model Political Attitudes for Youngsters

August 14, 2004|Lorraine Gayer

The man and I entered a Trader Joe's at the same moment, passing a sidewalk card table bedecked with "John Kerry for President" campaign signs and manned by volunteers. As soon as he was inside the market, I overheard one of the two teenage girls with him (presumably one of his daughters) ask him a question about Kerry.

"John Kerry hates America," he bluntly told her. As I watched, the family disappeared into the aisles of groceries, the apparently chastened girl falling silent. The father's curt and dismissive answer to his daughter's legitimate question about the election left me angry and unsettled.

This presidential campaign season -- with the political parties filling the airwaves with paeans to family values and calls for parents to join the public schools in educating their children -- is a teachable moment for parents. Studies show that parents are the single greatest influence on a child's choice of a political affiliation, with as many as two out of three adult children embracing the affiliation held by their parents.

What can a parent do?

First, it is obvious that parents, regardless of political leanings, should avoid the Rush Limbaugh "cheap shot" approach. Of course, Kerry does not hate America, and, of course, George W. Bush is not a fool. Whatever we may think of their prescriptions for America's future, they are decent Americans.

It is a disservice to children to abuse the natural respect they hold for their parents by indoctrinating them with talk-show simplicities and political sound bites. Instead, why not explain who the candidates are -- Bush, a former Texas governor and incumbent president; Kerry, a Massachusetts U.S. senator for almost two decades and a decorated Vietnam War veteran -- and discuss what types of individuals deserve the nominations for president.

This could easily lead into a discussion of the presidency. Does character count (and what is character)? What makes a person a true hero? Is military service important to establish a president's competency as commander in chief? Should a president have experience in public office?

Parents also should teach their children to intelligently evaluate the issues presented by the candidates. Instead of a "John Kerry (or George Bush) hates America" answer, how much better would it be to use a child's question to discuss the actual issues in the campaign and the impact of those issues upon the family?

Probing such issues as gay rights, terrorism, taxes, the Patriot Act, etc. would seem to present a tremendous opportunity to discuss the family's values. This would also be a fine opportunity to teach lessons about tolerating differing points of view, including the child's.

Finally, why not encourage children to participate in classroom and schoolyard discussions, read newspapers and news magazines and learn to recognize political propaganda (including name-calling and attack ads) for what it is -- the tactic of bullies? Those lessons would almost certainly be carried forward to school, where students would begin to hone the skills of responsible citizenship at a young age.

I worry about the girl at Trader Joe's. Will she grow up to think about politics as nothing more than nasty sound bites, wherein a legitimate candidate is arbitrarily dismissed as "hating America," or is it remotely possible that her father can come to his senses and introduce her to the skills of political and social responsibility?

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Lorraine Gayer lives in Huntington Beach.

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