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.