Civics 2016

Once upon a time, parents could protect their children from knowledge of the world out there.  Learning to read was the big step that enabled children to pursue information on their own, which also provided motivation for them to learn.  The advent of television and the digital age changed that.  Parents are hard pressed to keep their children away from any kind of information be it seamy or frightening, sex scandals or beheadings.

These days, parents are talking about how to deal with current events of the sort children might have been encouraged to learn about.  The question being raised is how to talk to children about the behavior and language of Donald Trump and its emulation by others on the debate stage.   The problem for many parents is that children are being exposed to potential national leaders on a national stage setting an example that runs counter to parental values as well as to school expectations.

Since parents are concerned about what children are taking from this, I asked my reliable twelve-year-old middle-school informant whether she and her friends were following the election.  With no hesitation she said that everyone was talking about Trump.  What are they saying?  Her response was, they consider him much more a joke than anything else.  Where is this coming from, are they watching the debates?  She patiently explained that all the candidates have social media accounts and that is how everyone is following what they say.    

The take away about Trump’s ideas seems to be related to his whole idea of building a wall.  I pointed out that there are many people who agree with his ideas and like the sense that he is tough.  I wondered if any of the kid expressed that feeling.  Her answer was that they might think he is strong but they don’t look up to him as a role model.

What else I learned is that there is no serious discussion about the election.  In school they do learn about various aspects of the government and its functioning but current events are not brought into this.  She believes that just as with the terrorist attacks, teachers think it is not their place to have these discussions.  My final question was whether kids think what is happening now reflects politics generally.  She was clear that this is unusual and is not typical of politics.

If what this youngster reported reflects the attitude of many young people, there are both positive and negative thoughts to be drawn from her observations.  Most striking is that youngsters seem to be getting their information and ideas from social media.  Social media have replaced John Stewart as the source of news, which sounds like one step down.  Related and more significant, is the idea that serious discussion about current events is considered inappropriate for the classroom.  

It would be unfortunate if this is true.  The classroom seems like the ideal place for a discussion of our democratic form of government and the way it works.  It does not require a partisan approach to help children think about how to separate one’s ideas from the way those ideas are expressed – and also about how disagreement can be expressed.    

Parents are faced with the challenge of having these discussions, and the further challenge of adjusting such discussions to the age and developmental level of their children.  Perhaps it can help if parents demonstrate in such discussions the values they would like to impart.   By expressing their own opinions about various ideas in a way that is respectful of the right of people to disagree they also demonstrate the distinction between ideas and the way they are expressed.

Children often disagree with their parents and sometimes express that disagreement in unacceptable ways.  A discussion of civics can be useful in teaching civility – within the family as well as in the political world.