Kids and Politics

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These are exciting times around our house, and it's not the economy, stupid. It's the election. Our two-year-old loves the balloons. Our seven-year-old can't wait to vote in our upcoming bake-off between Tipper Gore's Ginger Snaps and Laura Bush's Texas Governor's Mansion Cowboy Cookies. And our 10-year-old still can't get over the friendship between Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones.

After the conventions, though, I was a little worried. Our kids may be gung-ho, but the older ones haven't got a clue about campaign-finance reform, and the youngest wouldn't know George W. from George of the Jungle. How could we translate their interest into a true political education? The numbers don't look good: according to the Federal Election Commission, less than one third of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the 1996 presidential election. If we want our oldest to go to the polls in '08, we have to get busy.

The candidates' web sites aren't much help. does nothing special for children, and Gore's "Just For Kids," a corner of Al, is a big snore. I can't leave my daughters unattended at the "Virtual Library" houses 186 mentions of Monica.

What about the bookstores? Beyond the standard fare — like Washington coloring books — there were a few standouts. Alice Provensen's "The Buck Stops Here" is a droll recap, in verse, of all 42 presidents. (Tricky Dick's couplet: "Here's Thirty-seven! Nixon, R./ California's tarnished star.") Judith St. George's "So You Want to Be President?" offers such tips as "It might help if your name is James." The kids' sentimental favorite: "When John & Caroline Lived in the White House."

Entertaining, yes, but serious civics lessons? I'm not so sure.

I called Jeffrey Tulis, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Rhetorical Presidency." He scoffed at the idea of trying to elevate the level of political discourse in our home. First of all, he said, "young kids' reaction to politics is much like their reaction to sports and religion. They just want to know, 'Whom do we root for?'" Besides, local elections usually mean more to children than national ones. Tulis' daughter Elizabeth, for instance, now a college senior, was thrilled when Dad took her out of elementary school to join then Texas governor Ann Richards' triumphant inaugural march in 1991.

Tulis' larger point: If parents act as if politics matters, kids will pick up on that enthusiasm. The biggest assets in my education campaign, I realize, are my husband and his mother, a pair of lifelong political junkies. She indoctrinated him in the joys of campaign rallies at a tender age, and now shows our kids the sights of Washington whenever we visit. He campaigned for Mo Udall in high school, worked for Ed Koch after college and can usually be found in the den, glued to C-SPAN's "Road to the White House."

I know the kids will be all right. These days our younger daughter sports a new T-shirt, courtesy of Grandma, that reads, SOMEDAY A WOMAN WILL BE PRESIDENT! Her big sister trades partisan insults with other sixth graders, who already identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats. And their two-year-old brother has actually been spotted watching C-SPAN. Maybe it's because Dad left the TV on, but hey, it's a start.