“I’m gonna send your vote to college” (or 2nd grade anyway)

When, during the Democratic National Convention, they paid tribute to the late Ted Kennedy, I sat down on the sofa to watch even as the chaos of the dinner and homework hour pressed on. I expected to have to ignore the crashes and whines that usually come in the wake of my getting sidelined by something that holds my attention a little longer than 2ndgrade word problems and cleaning up spaghetti from the floor.

But there was no whining, no pasta casualties. There was the peace that comes when children sit riveted in front of the glow of the tv. And yet it was neither Phineas nor Ferb who had gotten us here. It was footage of a bombastic and committed Ted Kennedy—the flawed, but effective Senator who captured my own bleeding heart at a young age. Beside me my 7-year-old daughter sat, glued as I was to the bluster of Ted Kennedy’s speeches, his handshakes, the fights he fought on behalf of all of us. Who IS that? She asked me. And I told her a little bit about him, a little bit more about the election, about who is running, and about how people tend to vote based on the things that are most important to them.

Even my 5-year-old sat still-ish, pretending to concentrate on words like “healthcare” and “education.” The evening ended with said 5-year-old’s attention span tumbling into a heap along with the stool he had been teetering on, but it did not end without my daughter declaring that she was a Democrat. I choked back my melodramatic, proud-to-be-political tears and patted myself on the back. I was raising a good (if slightly left-leaning) citizen. Okay, a Kennedy-loving, social medicine endorsing, card carrying liberal, but still. She cares about the election!

Then, as I tucked in my newly anointed politico, something strange happened. “Will something bad happen if Mitt Romney wins?” she asked me. And she had a lump in her throat—a frightened lump. What had I done? And how could I fix it?
I looked at her seriously. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing bad will happen. There might be some changes, but we get a say in those too.”
     Because the truth is, we have a pretty good system.
     And with every election, we have the opportunity to expose our children to that system–the excitement! the energy! the mobilizing! the yelling! the laughing! But mostly we get to expose them to things like the way our kind of democracy works—the bell ringing and enthusiasm of the electoral college, the crazy costumes and buttons of convention attendees. And we all get to entertain the possibility of change.
     But here is the most important thing about all of this. We get to teach our children to vote. We get to tell them that every person of legal age in this country gets to participate—to cast their vote for the person who they think will be the best leader. And we get to teach them that the end of the day, the whole system is set up so we don’t have to be afraid. After all, for every president we don’t agree with, there is a congressperson who also doesn’t agree. This was by design and it is part of what makes our country special and great and it is also part of what makes it frustrating when you want change (and you want it fast.)
     I had the opportunity in my editorial life to spend an entire day with the late Senator Kennedy (we were doing a book about his beloved dog, Splash, and his dog’s eye view of the political process). It was a day I will never forget—I got to sit in his office and talk about process, all while trying not to gawk at the wall of Kennedy memorabilia—snapshots with his parents, his brothers, their letters, their little-kid handwriting. And I got to witness first-hand Kennedy’s dedication to the process itself, his hustle toward a vote, his trying to accomplish something at every turn. The thing I took away from that day besides an adrenaline rush that took years to die down, was how much Kennedy believed in the system and how he worked it, and how it paid off for our country.
     But never mind that now. Right now, with two weeks left, we can use this moment not to teach them to be afraid, but to teach them NOT to be afraid. Because we have a process. And it kind of works and we should all be really proud of that and we should all bring our kids inside that voting curtain and pull that lever like it is our job. And then let them stay up late and watch election results with Stripes and Blues Terra chips in front of them on the sofa!
     And if you’re just not that into all of this, the least you can do is school your kids 80’s style in the ways of bill making and the election process and by the end, you might just all be participating. And cheering, E-L-E-C-T-O-R-A-L! All thanks to

I look 12, but it’s me (with Ted Kennedy!)

some good old-fashioned Schoolhouse Rock.

The books!
Somehow, even the well-meaning books designed explicitly to help kids understand the process of electing our leaders evoke controversy. Dare to scroll down into the comments section (I know, I know) and there it is: vitriol.  (The author has it all wrong! We are no democracy! Down with the electoral college!) But here are some good ones:
For 5 and up
Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
My Teacher for President by Kay Winters and Denise Brunkus
My Senator and Me: A Dog’s Eye View of Washington, D.C. by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, illustrated by David Small
7 and up:
Babymouse for President by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
Vote! By Eileen Christelow
Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Phem
So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small
Madam President by Lane Smith

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