The number of American political geeks under age eighteen is predictably low. I mean, why should kids geek out about something they can’t even participate in?
The better question is: Why shouldn‘t they? Kids aren’t allowed to vote, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of understanding what’s going on around them. Besides, kids are natural debaters, negotiators and compromisers. Politics are right up their alley.
All it takes to nurture budding civics geeks is to frame political events in a context familiar to kids. Take the divide between campaign strategy and governing strategy, for example. We address this with our kids all the time, we just may not be aware of it. In practical terms, it’s the choice between the shiniest toy advertised everywhere on TV and the old favorites that survived our toyboxes long enough to handed down to our kids. It’s figurines versus Legos. Kids are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they want a delicate treasure on their shelf or a reusable component in their adventure kit. In the long run, people don’t always want just one kind or the other, and with toys as in politics, we get some of both in the long run.
After the campaign, there’re winners and losers. A sports analogy would work right now, but comparing politics with sports is overdone. Cooperative board games and roleplaying games work better, anyway. In co-op games and RPGs as in politics, it’s possible for individuals to lose a contest even if their team is victorious overall, and vice versa. Whatever analogy you use, there are two important further lessons here: First, everyone loses sometimes. Second, nobody likes a sore loser. Kids catch on pretty quickly (faster than most politicians, it seems) that they need to accept their losses with at least a modicum of grace if they want to play again later. The same rules apply to winners, actually.
In politics as at home, when the game night victory laps and concession speeches are over, it’s time to do the chores. It’s important work, but there are some in every group who try to put it off until later or shirk it altogether. Parents and voters reserve the right to withhold privileges from those lazybones, and let that be a lesson to the rest. And just like people in families, politicians in DC usually don’t have the option of doing only the easy stuff or the jobs they like best. All the work has to get done – the trash has to go somewhere, debts must be paid, and arguing about it doesn’t help much – but when we work together, everything gets done faster and better.
I’m not sure about politicians, but schoolchildren will probably find this lesson remedial.
Representation is another necessary civics lesson that may be easier for kids to grasp than it is for some politicians. Put simply, “It’s only fair if everyone gets to play”. Even the teams are unimportant if most of the players are locked in a penalty box before the game begins. And if you think kids can’t wrap their heads around what it means when people are sidelined and stereotyped for their gender, race, and sexuality, think again. Kids hate feeling left out, so this is an easy lesson on principle, but teaching it could be complicated by the fact that there are no African-Americans in the next US Senate.
True, a lot about politics is mystifying, even to the adults whose job it is to analyze policy, vote on it, and govern. But the basics are certainly accessible to kids if we’re willing to parse them into contexts children can relate to. Don’t underestimate what they’re able to puzzle-out on their own, either. Even little kids possess a formidable arsenal of analytical capacities, and they automatically look to the experts (that’s us, grown-ups) when they want to understand the rules at play.
So satisfy their natural curiosity; answer their questions and include them in your political conversations. You never know, but a little civics geekery could go a long way. Someday, game night at your house might turn into election night at the white house.