Politics and Parenting: A Civic Duty

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Image: Karen Walsh

I remember when we did the Weekly Reader election question: who would you vote for? It must have been the election of 1988. That’s my assumption because by 1992, I was in high school. I remember my parents hearing that we’d done that and them discussing how all this did was poll the parents.

I remember being in middle school and having to do a report on a controversial topic. I remember wanting to choose one side, originally, then my mom introducing me to the Franciscan priest teaching religious education at our church. I talked to him about it and changed my position.

I remember debating some topic post-college and my mom jokingly saying, “Sending you to college was our biggest mistake. It taught you to think for yourself.”

I see my parenting role as a civic duty. That probably sounds patriotic of me or something, but when I look at the world around us, I see my child as the one making future decisions. My responsibility as a parent is not to teach my child my politics, though. It is to teach him how to think and understand issues so that he can be the change the world needs.

That probably sounds kind of high-minded. I suppose the best response I can give is that it’s about the fact that I cannot always change myself. I try. I do. I’ve said recently that I don’t always, at heart, believe the things I tell my son, but I know that they’re important in our social and political discourse for him to hear. So, I make sure that he’s more equipped to be the change that I cannot always be.

What does that look like?

I listen to people. I listen to all people. I have friends and family who are very conservative, very liberal, and moderately moderate. I listen to how people want to be addressed. I listen to what is important to people. I listen to the crazy views and the reasoned views. I agree with some, disagree with others, but mostly I just listen.

I talk to people. I ask them questions. I try to understand their answers. I ask logical questions and emotional questions. Understanding other people helps me answer my son’s questions. More importantly, I want to model respectful curiosity. I don’t expect every person with a different life experience to speak for their group because that’s both inappropriate and intrusive. However, I want my son to learn that curiosity can make him a better person when he does it in a non-hurtful and respectful manner.

I watch my words. One of the things I hate in our current political narrative is the demonization people have for those who think differently. It’s easy to make a political meme. It’s easy to photoshop devil horns on someone. However, that’s dangerous. Demonization sets up “us vs. them” mentalities. It sets up right vs. wrong. It sets up winning vs. losing. It sets up rigidity and defensiveness. Those mentalities are dangerous.

I present multiple arguments in response to questions. When my son asks questions, I present him both arguments. I try to be careful to keep the two discussions equally neutral. Why? I want to give my son a chance to think about the ideas on their merits, not try to please me. I want him to learn to wade through information and make his own decisions. I want him to come to his own conclusions. If I don’t like them, I can explain what fallacies there are in them, but if he believes something in his soul, he has that right.

I do this because:

What if some day, what I think is right now is really… Wrong?

What if my son grows up inculcated in my beliefs because that’s where he grew up and change in the future means having to analyze and think instead of just blindly believing?

What if, when he’s an adult, something that I believe right now is cruel? Or is unfair?

If all I teach him are the beliefs I hold, he will be woefully incapable of seeing other sides and making his own decisions. I grew up with beliefs that were socially acceptable in the 1980’s but are hurtful now. I have had to change, but it was hard to go against what I felt were my parents’ beliefs. I want my son to form his own beliefs so that he can learn to change based on new information not stay rigid out of a sense of duty.

Last month, my son started asking who I was going to vote for. I don’t really want him to know. I want him to make his own decisions without knowing my thoughts. I went to the website We walked through the questions one at a time. When my son wasn’t sure about whether he wanted to say yes or no, we discussed the the answers. We even went through the “other stances” responses. I enjoyed watching him think with the little furrow in his brow, follow up with his own questions, and finally make a decision. Some were different than mine. Some were not. Some were much more thorough. In response to environmental policy, he decided, for example, that the government should both increase environmental regulations and provide incentives for new alternative energy production because “we need to have electricity to run things but we only have one world.”

I cannot always be the change I want to see in the world. I try, but I make mistakes. I can, however, teach my son to think and be his own man when he grows into an adult so that he can be the change the world needs. I do believe, as the song goes, that children are our future. So yes, I will teach him well so that he may lead the way.

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