The Children Are Watching

Below is a double entry of sorts. The first is a slightly revised recent blog entry. The latter is an unpublished piece that another parenting website found “too partisan” to publish back around the time of the 2004 election. It’s important to me that my children are informed and active participants in the political process, even as young as they are (currently, ages 4 and 9). Tonight, we’re heading over to our local Obama headquarters to do our part.Read on…

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw

“Hey, Mom! We’ve got Obama and Clinton FIGHTING!”

Say what?

My oldest daughter, Taylor, age 9, and a friend (also 9) are in the next room playing computer games. Last I checked, the game was Club Penguin. So of course, this little announcement from my budding Don King warranted an investigation.

Seems Taylor and friend ventured onto an online gaming site I’ve never heard of and found a game called “Street Fight” which lets players pit the two Democratic front-runners against each other mano a mano (y pie a pie) in front of the White House as a group of…who? undecided voters maybe?…looks on. Of course, Bill has to make an appearance as well.

I asked Taylor which candidate she’d chosen for the battle. You would have thought I’d asked her if she was wearing clean underwear. “Obama, Mom!”

If it were up to Taylor and the other third graders at her school, Obama would win Pennsylvania’s April 22nd primary hands down. Recent lunch and recess conversation has centered on HRC as “a sore loser”, “not playing fair,” and, inexplicably, “against young people.”

In our house, we’ve talked in age-appropriate terms about what the candidates stand for, and about the historical moment–how our next president could be the first woman or the first black person to hold the office. A year ago, Taylor–who in 2004 had been a die-hard Kerry supporter, complete with button on her preschool backpack, and a mean side-eye to neighbors with Bush signs in their yards–voiced her support for Clinton: “We’ve had boy presidents before, but we’ve never had a woman president before.”

Me: “We’ve also never had a black president before.”

Taylor: “I know. But I still want her to win. And then I can be the 2nd woman president when I’m old enough.”

Fast forward one dirty campaign season later, and my girl is all about Obama. My support of him apparently carries less weight than the negative stuff she’s heard about HRC from her peers at school, most of whom are white. I confirmed much of the chatter she’d heard about HRC, and this strengthened her resolve.

Back to “Street Fight”…How this gaming site got past the parental control filter I have installed, why Taylor went to a site we’ve never discussed before, and the consequences of violating my “No fighting games at Mommy’s house” rule…are all topics beyond the scope of this blog entry. What I’m thinking about here is what kids are learning about politics, elections, and civility from watching this current campaign season unfold. Unlike me at her age, my daughter realizes that elections are about more than just casting votes. More innocence lost, but I have mixed feelings about this. By the time my kids are old enough to vote themselves, they will be far more savvy about campaigning and politics than I was when I cast my first vote. I was mostly clueless and hopeful. My wish for them is that as voters they would be wiser, critical, maybe even cynical, but not completely jaded. And somehow, still hopeful.

More importantly, my wish for them is that they would demand candidates who are worthy of their votes, and never have to choose the lesser of two evils to lead this country and represent us to the world.

Now, traveling back in time to the 2004 election…

“Mommy, did he just say ‘President Bush’?”

“Yes.” We are watching CNN. Or rather, I’m watching, and Taylor is watching under protest. Somewhere, on another channel, Arthur is getting annoyed with his little sister, D.W., and Taylor is annoyed that she’s missing it. Still, she hasn’t tuned Lou Dobbs out all together.

“Is Bush the President of the United States?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. I thought New York was the President.”

“The president is a person. New York is a state in the United States of America. Like Pennsylvania.”

Now would be a great time for a geography lesson, but I have no idea where the laminated map is. No matter: Taylor is fixated on our fearless leader.

That’s Bush?”

“Yep, that’s him.”

“He’s a bad guy, you know, ’cause he’s for war.”

What can I say? The preschool where my church-going, meat-eating daughter has learned about atheism and vegetarianism is decidedly left of center. Already knowing the answer, I ask Taylor where she’d heard about Bush. “Well, during snack time Evan told Zoe…”

Fast forward one year and a few more CNN newcasts later, and Taylor is a gung-ho six-year-old with a Kerry-Edwards sticker on her Strawberry Shortcake backpack. She narrows her eyes at Bush ’04 signs in our neighbors’ yards and wonder why we stop and talk to them. She’s got all the makings of a good partisan.

“Is Bush going to not be president anymore because he’s for war?”

“Well, he wants to be president again. But so does John Kerry. That’s why we’re having an election: to vote for the person we’d like to be president.”

Taylor’s eyes widen with understanding. “Ohhh…that’s right! And they make speeches on TV! Kerry says, ‘I’ll give you beautiful homes, beautiful toys, and yummy food.’ And Bush says, ‘I love war!’”

(I leave it to her father to explain to her the subtle nuances of being “for war” vs. being “a thoughtless warmonger.” He’s much better at splitting hairs than I am.)

Fast forward one election and the loss of a little bit of a little girl’s idealism, and Taylor is still lamenting Kerry’s loss. She knows nothing about Bush’s proposed budget cuts for 2006–she groans whenever CNN is on–but she asks me what’s going to happen to all the hungry, homeless people now. We talk about things we can do to help others–giving of our time and money, not wasting food, giving thanks. Taylor’s brow furrows in resignation. And, she tells me, she still hates war.

Because she’s entitled to come to her own healthy skepticism and cynicism in due time, I do not share my questions with Taylor. Given the tangled web of Washington politics and bureaucracy, would fewer children go to bed hungry tonight, would Head Start funding increase to at least keep pace with inflation, under a Kerry administration? Would President Kerry have had any choice but to stop worrying and learn to love the war too, or at least to finish off what his predecessor started? In the lives of the neediest among us, does it really make a difference which rich white man resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

One thing for sure, reducing the deficit on the backs of those least capable of bearing the burden is not only unconscionable, but counterintuitive. That seems so simple, even a child can see it.

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

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