How to talk to kids about politics


Like so many LGBT parents, my wife Tracie and I are raising our kids in the cross-hairs of a cultural war. Our oldest son, B-Man, was conceived on the day that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated the wedding of long-time lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, sparking an international marriage equality firestorm. Our youngest son, K-bird, was barely taller than his homemade “Support Our Family” sign when he stood on a street corner in our San Francisco Bay Area suburb, shouting “Vote no on Prop 8!” Though we have always made it clear to our kiddos that their participation in political activities is optional, these dudes unfailingly opt in.

Child protesting Prop 8As a result, in my life as a parent, politics have been a constant companion, like a cat performing figure-eights between my feet as I scramble around the kitchen, trying to put dinner on the table. So you might think I’d know something about talking to kids about politics. After all, in my sons’ short lives, I have fielded countless questions like “Why would people vote yes on Prop 8?” and “If Prop 8 is unfair, why did it win?” And sure, I’ve figured out some basic ground rules for these sorts of conversations:

1) Tell the truth in kid-friendly language.

Okay, so I’ve figured out one ground rule. But ultimately in this, as in all things parenting, I’m really just making it up as I go along.

So the other day, when my now eight-year-old son, B-man, asked me, with a barely detectable tremor in his voice, “Mommy, what will happen if Romney wins?” Per usual, I had no idea what to say.

I did, however, have some idea what not to say, like for instance, the first words that popped into my head: All hell will break loose. Nope. No good. Keep looking.

Here’s what I do know about my kids: When they are asking questions about change, no matter if they’re asking what it will be like at that vacation house we rented for a week, or what it will be like if a gay-hater who courted the Tea Party to become the republican presidential nominee becomes president, what they’re really asking is this: Am I going to be safe?

When contemplating a Romney (forgive the parenthetical statement here, but I can’t stand to type these two words next to each other) presidency, at least from an adult perspective, “Am I going to be safe?” is a complex question. Will we be safe if this guy takes over international relations? Will we be safe if he’s our frontrunner on domestic social issues? Will we be safe if he employs the exact economic tactics that created this country’s current financial mess? Hmm …

But from a kid perspective “Am I safe?” means stuff like, “Will you and Mama still be here to make my oatmeal in the morning?” Or “Will we still have oatmeal?” Or “Will we still be allowed to be a family?”

So I answer the question this way: I look deep into my kiddo’s ocean blue eyes and say, “If Romney wins,” I can hardly utter the words, “nothing in our house will change.”

And even as I’m saying it, I realize this is not so much a true statement as it is a vow to my child.

In truth, if, you know, that thing were to happen, lots would change. Women, immigrants, LGBT folks, the nation’s economically challenged, the middle class, and citizens who would be impacted by any potential foreign policy fall-out (read: all of us) would face anxiety-producing uncertainties. But no matter what’s happening in our country or in my own psyche, I need to make sure that any anxiety I might feel does not trickle down to my children. No matter who lives in the White House, I will muster the kind of constancy, confidence, optimism, and family pride that builds a solid foundation for children.

But at the same time that I make that vow of constancy, I want to make sure that my kiddo knows that it really does matter who wins the presidency. “Pffft, no big deal” is a lie. And I don’t want to lie to my kid.

So I feed my brain’s adult data on the candidates into the kid-language translator, and it comes out this way:

“Different politicians think differently about how our government should make and spend money. They think differently about how our government should support people who need help. They think differently about how our country should communicate with other countries. They think differently about who should have what rights.”

“Yeah,” B-man chimes in, speaking like the pint-sized civil rights warrior he is, “like Romney would have voted yes on Prop 8.”

“Right,” I say. “And the w

ay President Obama thinks very closely matches the way I think and the way Mama thinks. So we’re voting for him.”

“And the way Romney thinks doesn’t match.”

Cheryl Dumesnil and family

Cheryl Dumesnil and family

“Right,” I say. “And if Obama is no longer our president, things in our government and our country will change. But in this house, we are a family, and we love each other, and we are sticking together, and no matter who is president, that will never change.”


Poet, writer, activist, and educator, Cheryl Dumesnil is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood.” She spends her free time jumping on a trampoline and telling potty jokes, because the sound of her kids’ laughter makes her really, really happy.

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