Who Is Responsible for Teaching Our Kids About Politics?
A recent exchange between my oldest son and my mom has left me pondering an important question, one I think a lot of moms, dads, grandparents and extended family members might find themselves mulling over this year. I love the relationship my boys have with their grandparents, and I find each of those grandparents to be vital in different ways when it comes to teaching our kids about various life lessons. However, I found myself upset when it comes to life lessons, a grandparent, and the topic of politics. I'm left wondering: Who is responsible for teaching children about politics? Are there lines grandparents or other family members shouldn't cross? How do we maneuver these lines?
Let me set up the scenario for you.
"Your oldest son asked me why I'm not voting for Obama."
I gulped my coffee and hid my smile in my coffee cup before regaining my composure. "Oh, sorry. We've been talking a lot about the election and the importance of voting. The boys know which candidate we favor, though we're working hard to raise them like you raised me -- to form their own political beliefs, of course. I'll talk with him about not getting in peoples' faces about their votes; he's not quite seven and still learning. What did you say anyway?"
"I told him that I vote based on *insert reason here*."
The reason she gave for choosing her candidate doesn't matter. Insert reasons ranging from the economy, religious preferences, what a Union told them to do, because a Union told someone else to vote a different way, because the sky is blue. What her answer thus meant was, "I vote this way, unlike your mother."
That's not cool.
More over, the reason that she gave for voting the way she does happens to be something important in my life. So it was a double whammy of an insult.
I chose not to address it at that time, knowing that if I went with the emotional, knee-jerk reaction, I'd end up regretting my words. I revisited the feeling -- the anger -- later, when I had time to dissect it and pinpoint why I was so angry.
Was it because my mom votes differently than me? No. That's not it. As I've said before, my parents raised me to be a free-thinking individual. I'm not necessarily sure they intended to raise a liberal -- and so far the only one out of all of the cousins, a lone black sheep -- but they've always respected my views, my right to have and even share those views. I have been likewise respectful, trying not to be obnoxious or unnecessarily in-your-face when the after dinner discussion turns to all things political. We joke, but we don't poke the issues or the person's right to feel the way they do. I purposefully don't engage with my younger brother who falls even more in line with their views. So no, it wasn't the whole political differences thing.
I poked and prodded at the places you don't know you'll have to go when you welcome your child into your family, hand him over to his grandparents and smile at the generations coming together. What was this anger? I thought of how the roles might be reversed if I was a conservative raised by similarly parenting-minded liberals; ones who chose to raise their kids to make their own choices. Or, I mulled, what if we weren't of opposing viewpoints? What if we were of the same political realm, voting for the same candidates and the same way on various issues? Would I still be bothered if my mom or my dad or my brother or cousin chose to share their political thoughts with my sons? And I came up with the answer that I would be bothered even if we voted the same.
I thought of my paternal grandparents. They played a huge role in helping form who I am, and they just so happen to vote the same way as my parents on most issues. (I say most because no one in my family, myself included, votes a "straight ticket.") As a teenager, I remember some political discussions with my grandparents, but it was mainly of the, "Do they really have to say the words "oral sex" on television?! Can't he keep it in his pants and can't the media shut up?" As a young child clear through to my 30's, I can't remember my grandmother ever imparting any words of voter-swaying, informing, or misinforming to me. Maybe there are moments, little things that I don't remember. But I can tell you this: If my grandmother would have dared to have said something that basically said "I vote the right way, your mother votes the wrong way" to me, there would have been hell to pay. Steep hell.
And so I'm left with this, with a child who pays close attention to the news, to the political commentary going on all around him, to the signs in his neighbors' yards. He's trying on political opinions, forming the basis for what he'll believe and vote someday in the future. I want to give him that space while still being afforded the right to teach him the things that I think are important for our political leaders to do for and with us. I think that's my right, as the parent, to choose what we share as important ideals when it comes to politics. We do so in smart ways, by questioning what we hear and not allowing "I hate the other candidate" speech in our home. I know my own parents didn't choose the Totally Hands Off approach, and still raised someone with differing political beliefs, so I choose to believe that sharing my ideals with my sons while simultaneously having conversations about freedoms and rights to choose accordingly is the best way to go about things.
I feel I'm being over-sensitive, and perhaps doing what I don't want to do.
If I want my sons to have the freedom to choose their own political belief system, shouldn't I then be exposing them to differing beliefs? Maybe I'm mostly annoyed with the way it was phrased. Maybe I'm feeling territorial over my child's learning process. Maybe she was just sharing her truth and didn't intentionally mean to throw me under the bus with her reasoning. Maybe I'm not as open to opposing discussion as I think, though I am able to hold my weight in such conversations; is it fair to assume my nearly seven-year-old should be too? I feel thrown by how a simple conversation has left me to reconsider how I approach this topic. At the very least, considering all of these things is probably not a bad thing, to approach all of this in a mindful, purposeful way. Good job, grandma?
I followed up with our son a few days later.
"Buddy, I know you feel like your candidate is the best for the job, but others, like your YiaYia, are allowed to feel differently. I do want you to know that while you shouldn't point-blank question them on the way they're voting, no one should make you feel like you're wrong for liking whichever candidate or supporting whichever issue you choose. Okay?"
He looked at me, wary that he might be in trouble. I assured him that he wasn't, that I was just trying to teach him how to be respectful of others' beliefs, of other points of view. He thought for a moment, smirked, and said, "This is another one of those lessons, isn't it?"
Maybe, in that sentence right there, my son taught me that he's learning and understanding and making sense of things -- even when the adults around him are just flubbing around, trying to make sense of things themselves. Maybe.
And so I turn to you, BlogHer readers, to ask: How do you feel when grandparents or other family members pass off political opinion on your children? Does it feel different coming from any one member? How do you best handle these drifting lines in the sand?