• 70°

An early lesson in civics

By Lucy Schultze

You know those slick campaign flyers that have been clogging up your mailbox these past few weeks? The ones you’ve been tossing straight in the recycling bin alongside used car advertisements and credit card offers?

I’ve been saving them on my desk at home, stacked beside my kids’ preschool class lists and the bill from Rainbow Cleaners.

My kids and I spread them out across the kitchen table and talk about what each flyer is saying. They can’t read yet, so I interpret some of the aggressive messages in more respectful ways. But even if they can’t read about the issues themselves, the election seems relevant in their eyes. And not just because many of the flyers have pictures of children on them.

Since birth, Jacob, 5, and Eliza, 3, have helped mom or dad vote in nearly every election. I’ve cast ballots with a baby strapped in a front-carrier; I’ve balanced a toddler on my hip and tried to check the boxes before little fingers can reach the screen.

In this election, our kids are paying more attention. Granted, for them, the sacred experience of helping to cast a ballot is overshadowed by getting an “I Voted” sticker from the poll workers. But they’re beginning to understand the point and the process.

Helping them along the way has been “Bad Kitty for President,” which Jill Moore at Square Books Jr. pointed me to. It’s a silly yet somehow realistic take on the social-studies-textbook version of the election process. Like when Bad Kitty is campaigning door-to-door and has a hissy fit on the doorstep of his opponent — who is armed with a camera and forwards the photos on to the media.

We’ve had some door-to-door visits, too. In this election, our kids are most interested in the state House race, because both Mr. Brad and Mr. Jay have navigated the maze of riding toys to come knock at our front door.

The kids recognize both of them — in the mail flyers, in newspaper ads, and in The EAGLE’s coverage of the debate last week. For the latter, we looked at the photos and referenced the debate scene in “Bad Kitty” (a good lesson in actually addressing the issues instead of just hissing and spitting at your opponent).

At the national level, the kids find it mysterious that we don’t yet know who the next president will be. It’s going to be hard for them to wait patiently for an entire year more.

I find it sweet and also a little sad that politics is still a positive concept in their minds; they’re not yet jaded like the rest of us.

Soon enough, they’ll catch some of the nastier rhetoric. They’ll notice that, though the grown-ups insist we speak respectfully about other people, that rule doesn’t necessarily extend to politicians.

Will they be disillusioned by the first candidate scandal or broken campaign promise they are aware of? Maybe. But as they’ve learned from that Richard Nixon card in the box, even presidents can make bad choices.

Perhaps the most important civics lesson we can offer them at this point is simply connecting the concept of government with what we’re teaching them about the broader world. That there’s a lot of good in it, but it’s also broken. Every government is made up of people, and people are far from perfect. You have to be able to engage it without being shocked when it doesn’t work right.

So as we prepare to once again wrangle over who gets to put their finger to the touch-screen, I hope these early introductions will make them want to have a voice in their local, state and national governments someday. I hope I’ll model having respect for the candidates, who put themselves out there to be torn apart by partisans and studied by preschoolers.

At the very least, I hope they’ll learn from Bad Kitty’s oversight and register to vote as soon as they can.

Lucy Schultze is communications coordinator for  The Oxford Centre and can be reached at lucyschultze@mac.com.