My daughter’s political awakening

This morning, while I was driving Mia to school, I tuned the radio to the liberal talk station. Bill Press was coming on, and was leading his program with the protests in Wisconsin. I used to listen to this station all the time, but stopped as I began to grow tired of the lack of nuance displayed in the arguments. (My politics are deeply liberal, for fundamentally ethical and moral reasons, but it drives me crazy when people of my own side argue poorly, or dishonestly — which often happens when people are arguing about Team Democrat or Team Republican, instead of the moral engines that drive political philosophy.)

Anyway. The liberal station was on. I couldn’t listen to Ke$ha one more goddamned morning. (The breaking point: Mia turning to me and asking, with the frank and innocent curiosity of a girl of 10, “Dad, what does ‘grow a pair’ mean?”) Press was interviewing the president of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. Mia was silent for much of the drive. I could tell she was listening, but I knew much of it was going over her head.

Finally I turned down the radio.

“What’s going on here, kiddo, is –”

“I know, Dad. It’s about the governor of Wisconsin trying to stop people from being in unions.”

“Well … kind of.” There was no way she gleaned that from what she’d just heard. “Are they talking about this in school?”

It turns out that her teacher presents them with “political points,” which I take it are little kernels of topical news, and have the students think about them. I was impressed. I asked her what she had been taught, and she had a hard time verbalizing it. Which is understandable; it’s a complex idea for a fifth grader to understand. Hell, it is for many adults.

I tried to give her a more layered understanding of it, explaining what collective bargaining was (briefly), and talking a little bit about unions, what they were for, and why they were important. I asked her if any of that had been covered in class, and she said they had not.

“Dad, they just assume that we know what’s going on in the world, but this is the only news we get!” She gestured at the radio.

And I realized, to my horror, that she was right. We don’t have cable at home, so our television is used for watching DVDs and not much else. I get my news from various sources online. I’m so used to thinking of her as a little girl that I tend to forget that she’s reached an age that an awareness of the larger world is not only possible, but necessary.

And then she said, “I don’t know what to do, Dad. Mom tells me not to listen to the news because it’s depressing, but other people say I should because it’s good to know what’s going on in the world.”

How had I allowed myself to be left out of that conversation? And who was having it with her? I really dropped the ball here.

I told her that I was on the side of the argument that felt it was very important to know what was going on in the world, and why. Even if it’s depressing. I was careful to point out that it wasn’t always depressing, anyway. Wisconsin was an example. If the governor had been able to force his agenda on a passive and uninformed populace, it would have been. But because those people were paying attention, because they were aware of what was happening in the world, they were fighting back. And that was anything but depressing.

I resolved this morning to subscribe to a newspaper. I don’t know that she’ll want to read it often, but I want her to see that news is important, that information is important, and that it’s a regular part of life. Watching her dad stare at a computer screen does not convey that. I might be reading The New York Times, but I could be reading Facebook, for all she knows. I think that just a physical manifestation of the news, of some record of ongoing world events, will help reinforce the idea that this matters, and that it’s important to be aware of it.

She’s a curious child, and she loves to know things. Nothing infuriates her more than thinking that someone’s not telling her something, or that someone thinks she can’t handle something. She’s just like her old man that way. So I’m pretty convinced that if she sees me reading the paper in the morning, and talking a little bit about what I find there, it won’t be long before her little fingers are reaching for it too.

What will she make of what she finds? What kind of political ethos will she develop? I’m old enough now to know that I can’t dictate that, nor should I try to. I can teach her to be a moral human being. I can let her see my own ethical framework. These are the things that inform my own political disposition. I hope it’s one she grows to share, and frankly, I believe she will. But the first step in getting there — or to the dark side, should she choose to go that route — is knowing what’s happening outside our front door.

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15 Responses to My daughter’s political awakening

  1. Livia Llewellyn says:

    Your daughter’s lucky to have you as a dad – I wasn’t allowed to read the papers or watch the news until high school, and even then it was a constant fight to be allowed that much information about the world.

  2. Alexa says:

    I love what you said about “a physical manifestation of the news.” One of the things that makes the internet different from print is that it all comes to us on the same screen. Sure, _The New York Times_ homepage looks different than the _TMZ_ homepage–but not THAT different. When I was growing up, it was easy to have an instinctive sense that _Star_ magazine was not “real” and that _The New York Times_ was.

    That clear deliniation has changed in print as well, now that _Star_ can print in glossy and _NYTimes_ can print in color (and let’s not even get started on _USA Today_), but on the computer it’s even less instinctive.

    My students, who are 18+, have a very hard time knowing when they are reading a newspaper article, a blog, or a “factual article” that is actually an ad. The concept of scholarly publications is genuinely difficult to wrap their heads around, because there isn’t that physical sense that one magazine looks different from another.

    I think having a hard-copy subscription is an excellent solution to the problem you’ve seen. Not only are you giving her that “physical manifestation of the news,” you’re also showing her that you are willing to make an investment in information–not just scrolling through free websites.

    My mom is also of the “the news is depressing” camp, and she avoids the news as a result. I think there is something to be said for avoiding TV news, and any sensationalized news source, but I agree with you–ultimately, we HAVE to pay attention. And if it leads to complex, confusing conversations with your 10-year-old… well, I’m sure you’d rather explain abortion rights than the meaning of “grow a pair.”

    Great post, thank you! I think you’ve inspired me to write one about internet news sources, actually…

  3. April says:

    That girl is a born pagan liberal, N. I don’t think you have much to worry about there, although she may dabble in the dark arts briefly (Lord knows I did, but firmly place the blame on my Republican-saturated family for that!)

    • Nathan says:

      I remember the morning Reagan won the White House for the first time. I was too young to understand much, I would think. But Mom opened the door to the playroom where my brother and I were sitting amongst all our plastic Star Wars splendor, and gave us the news. I cried.

  4. Violet says:

    My Dad used to patiently explain the news and his point of view to me from a very early age. I think these conversations are the basis of knowledge I use to make my choices in life. I know I disagreed with him at times, sometimes resented his small town framework, and often used what I learned at school to try and show him up, but when I am pressed to make a choice, his point of view is my default.
    There is so much information out there, and ignorance is a tool wielded by more than government. I can’t see how more education will ever fail her.

  5. Foxessa says:

    This is so interesting. Thank you for sharing this parenting experience.

    You know, you could subscribe to The Nation. It’s got news, think pieces, art and book reviews and so on.

    Love, C.

  6. Alexa Duncan says:

    Time to get her addicted to NPR! :)

    • Nathan says:

      That’s not going to be easy. She caught about an hour of Prairie Home Companion once and has yet to forgive NPR for it…

      • Alexa Duncan says:

        Has anyone forgiven NPR for A Prairie Home Companion? If I have to listen to one more ad for Powdermilk Biscuits (heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious!), I’m going to scream.

        Maybe WNCW, then. They have NPR news reports at the top of the hour, without the risk of running into Garrison Keillor. However, your risk of exposure to bluegrass music and funk goes up incrementally.

  7. Dawn says:

    Wow Nathan. A great post. Something I didn’t really think about, honestly. Growing up, my dad watched the news religiously, so whether or not I was aware of what was going on, I was always aware that the news was on, and the newspaper was being read [even a tad obsessively]–but even at that, it became more like white noise. Maybe that’s how I became a journalist [before I sold out to public relations].

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