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Embracing the politics talk — with kids

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

One recent night at dinner, we talked about the Ku Klux Klan, and why we treasure our sacred American liberty of free speech, even when we don’t like that speech. Of course, with three elementary school kids, we also talked about the poop on the bathroom seat at school, Xbox games, and, petulantly, why we weren’t having pizza for dinner.

Say what you will about the alarming aspects of this presidential race – and that’s not for this essay—but I’m loving being a parent of kids of a rational, conversational age this election year. Four years ago, my children were 6, 4, and 1.  We may still have been talking about poop and pizza back then, but we certainly weren’t discussing politics.

I confess that I have changed over the last couple decades of my life, as I slid from the heady intellectual atmosphere of college into the prosaic but necessary details of adulthood. I grew to hate politics. I grew to hate politicians, too, and their power-brokering opportunism and phony promises. I didn’t have the patience for the nonsense, and so I checked out of most political news. Real life was busy enough, and it was easy to tune it all out.

In early 2016, though, politics are everywhere and there’s so much to discuss. We can’t ignore the extraordinarily polarized atmosphere in the United States, and the extreme behaviors and political views in play this year. No one can. We went to Canada last weekend to visit my husband’s sick grandmother, and many times over, upon hearing that we are American, disbelieving folks wanted to know, “What’s going on with this election?”

I’ve been tickled, though, by the silver lining to this turmoil –every day serves up an interesting and surprisingly deep conversation with our curious elementary-schoolers. It was an endorsement of Donald Trump by white supremacist David Duke that led to a dinner table discussion of the KKK.

“Can’t the president stop them?” my 5-year-old asks at the dinner table, when we tell the kids about lynchings and burning crosses and white-hooded rallies. She quite simply believes in the unlimited power of the presidency. But it’s more than that. She believes that good can prevail. I, on the other hand, had forgotten what it means to be an idealist.

My kids are hungry for ideals and they’re pulling me back in. I’m finding I can’t afford to be disillusioned anymore. When kids ask questions, parents try to answer. It’s part of the job description. When they ask the big questions, we have to give the big answers, the ones that probe what we really believe and stand for, and what we hope our children will be.

This election has handed us a ready-made opportunity to explore our civic values – a family philosophy class, if you will. We already teach our kids about personal values like kindness, honesty, generosity, and fidelity, hopefully by example as well as conversation, but we hadn’t spent much time on political values until now.

It’s a joy, and a thought-provoking one, to hear what my kids have to say about questions like, “If we believe in immigration and welcoming the stranger, but we also believe in fairness and following rules and laws, how should we treat illegal immigrants?  What about their children? Does it matter how long they’ve been here, and does it matter how they behave once they’re here?” Kids have a remarkable sense of justice, and fresh viewpoints that are waking up my jaded ears.

It’s striking, thinking in 4-year presidential terms, to see how far they’ve come since their toddler and preschool years, and to imagine four years ahead to a lively table with opinionated 14, 12, and 9-year-olds. I imagine we won’t always agree, but I can’t wait to hear their questions and opinions.

Then and now, none of us can have all the answers, but we do our best. In answer to the kindergartner’s question about the Ku Klux Klan, we explain that, yes, violence and vandalism are indeed illegal, but public rallies with hateful messages are not. My kids, used to our staid household rules about speaking to one another kindly, are a bit shocked that such ugliness could be allowed. I find myself vehemently defending free speech as a cornerstone of our democracy, and urging them to exercise their own free speech to combat ugliness wherever they meet it.

Somehow, it seems these kids have managed to unearth my old political fire. There’s too much at stake to remain quiet about our nation’s future, and so we are all finding our values and resolving to use our voices. Maybe free speech begins at home, at the dinner table.

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her at and on Twitter @Sharon_Holbrook.

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