Rick Santorum stands with his family on Super Tuesday. Surrounding him is his wife, Karen; his daughter, Elizabeth; his son, Patrick; and his mother, Catherine. (MATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS)

I watched Rick Santorum’s speech on Super Tuesday, but it wasn’t the candidate who held my attention during the 20-minute stemwinder.

I was transfixed by 11-year-old Patrick Santorum, standing front and center between his father who would be president and his 93-year-old grandmother.

Young Patrick put on an admirable front. He smiled shyly and applauded at the right moments. But as dad went on about gold medals and silver medals and Obamacare, about Ronald Reagan’s legacy and the national debt, young Patrick did what 11-year-old boys do best. He started to fidget.

He scratched his head. His fingers lingered precariously close to his nose. On several occasions, mom Karen Santorum looked over at him. There was no withering “Stand still and pay attention to your father” look in her eyes. Instead, her looks seemed to say, “You can get through this, bud. I know you can.”

Then came the yawns. It was close to 10 on a school night when the first one came, which he tried valiantly to stifle. But once it had escaped his lips, you knew more were coming.

By the time Rick Santorum wrapped up thanking the fine folks of Steubenville, Ohio, I wanted to tousle towheaded Patrick’s hair and shuffle him off to bed with the promise of ice cream for breakfast.

As parents, we’re proud of our kids. We want to show them off. If they are as adorable and polite as young Patrick seems to be, we think that reflects well on us. But I find kids as political signage unsettling.

Likewise I’m not a huge fan of the ads spread across the Web site of The Washington Post (and I’m sure many others) that show a breathtakingly good-looking family. Mother, father, two beautiful girls who are closer to young women than the little girls they were when we first glimpsed them four years ago. There are confident smiles on everyone’s faces. The family seems the epitome of what all Americans aspire to.

But the Obama 2012 campaign ad bothered me the same way that young Patrick Santorum being made to stand on that stage bothered me. The Obamas have assiduously (and appropriately) guarded their daughters’ privacy. Small items about the girls playing basketball have prompted calls by White House senior advisers to this newsroom. The message was clear: The girls are off-limits.

Except, it appears, when a family portrait can be helpful in wooing campaign contributions and voters.

I’d like to stipulate for the rest of the campaign that the candidates are good fathers who love their children and have tried, despite choosing a line of work that means being away a lot, to do right by their children. They don’t need to prove it by using them as props during stump speeches or on campaign literature.

And it’s not just political candidates who should question what role their children should have in political discourse. You don’t have to look hard to find children holding signs at anti-abortion rallies or even testifying before legislative bodies about gay marriage. They have become part of the Occupy movement. When a Manassas lingerie store opened in 2010, it was not before there were pint-size protesters walking a picket line.

As editor of KidsPost, I think there’s a lot about the news that needs to be explained to kids. But that should happen over the breakfast table or in the minivan on the way to soccer practice. The reality is that kids aren’t expressing their own political views until they are at least teens. They are merely parroting what their parents and teachers have told them. To parents who say that protests provide an important civics lesson, I would point out that we run the risk of turning our kids into little more than props at political rallies and in protest movements. Incredibly cute props, but props nonetheless.

So let’s keep kids in school and on playgrounds until November. And then, in the name of a real civics lesson, let’s take them with us when we vote. There is no better way to show kids — whether their name is Santorum, Obama or Grant — how important participatory democracy is than by letting them watch their parents participate in it.

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