How do you raise well-informed kids?

A seasoned political correspondent shares how she has approached the tricky subject of politics and other hard news with her kids, turning them into educated citizens who can vote on their own without mom looking over their shoulder. 

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    In this 2008 file image, young volunteers prepare to head out and canvass a neighborhood – encouraging voters to pick Obama.
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I wish I could say that I embarked on parenthood with a clear game plan for how to raise well-informed kids who care about the world, their neighborhood, and what the president has to say in his next State of the Union address.

But I didn’t, my Helicopter Mom status notwithstanding. And then life intervened. When my kids were 3 and 5, I became a single mom, and for the rest of their childhood was their primary parent. I was (and still am) working full time for the Monitor, and just getting dinner on the table in a reasonably timely fashion was good enough.

I don’t recall putting “Let’s discuss the front page of today’s Washington Post” on the menu. But I do recall a vague thought process. I would center conversations on what they were interested in – their school day, their activities, their friends – and let them bring up something in the news they might be wondering about, if they wanted. 

I’m also a big believer in leading by example. You want your kids to read the paper? Then read the paper yourself. Listen to NPR in the car on the way to school. Watch presidential debates together. (They might get bored, but they’ll remember that you thought it was interesting.) Let them see you reading the New Yorker or the Economist or that terrific new book about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

When something jaw-dropping happens – like 9/11 – that’s an obvious time to drill down on making sure they know what happened, how it affects them, and that they’re safe. On Sept. 11, 2001, my kids were in fourth and sixth grades at a DC public elementary school about three miles from the White House. They had friends with parents who worked at the Pentagon, and fortunately no one they knew lost a loved one.

But 9/11 is an extreme example. Most Washington news isn’t all that interesting to kids – except for elections. Politics is kind of like sports: There are winners and losers, “good guys” and “bad guys,” and if there’s a family “team,” kids will almost surely pick up on that, even if you’re not putting out a yard sign. I remember chanting on the playground in 1968, “Nixon’s the one, Humphrey is a bum!” I couldn’t have told you anything about Richard Nixon’s policy ideas, but somehow I was certain he should be our next president.

In our house, as a rule, we don’t put out yard signs, because I cover politics. I have only one requirement: You have to vote.

On Election Day 2012, I put a short post on Facebook saying that I had told all my kids – including now a stepson – that I don’t care how you vote, but you must vote. And that includes all the initiatives on the ballot in California, where two of my three kids were living. Study up in advance, I advised. Those ballot measures can be long and complicated.

Soon, a “friend” replied that I was irresponsible not to make sure that my kids were going to vote “correctly.” Wow, I thought. Is that really the role of a parent, to tell their kids how to vote?

I recalled dinner with friends and their 20-year-old son, who announced that he didn’t like either President Obama or Mitt Romney, and was going to vote third party (in Wisconsin, where he was attending college). His parents were apoplectic. That’s a big mistake! they told him. You’re throwing out your vote! In a battleground state!

Again, I was a bit taken aback. Maybe, I thought, this kid needs to vote third party and see how that feels. After all, Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes certainly wouldn’t hinge on his vote alone. But I wasn’t going to tell my friends how to parent their son. So I kept quiet. 

The farthest I’ve gone in instructing my kids on election matters is advising them to vote at college (out of state) and not in the District of Columbia, since DC doesn’t have voting representation in Congress.

In my family, whom you vote for is a deeply personal matter, and it’s nobody’s business. By the time kids are old enough to vote, they’re old enough to figure out whom to vote for on their own. You want to talk about issues? Ask away.

The main thing, for parents, is to give kids the tools to reach their own conclusions. When my kids went off to college, I gave them student subscriptions to a few publications. So it may come as no surprise that my kids – boys out of college, daughter still in – are big consumers of news. Print newspapers are largely dinosaurs in their world, except for the Sunday New York Times.

On a night in, my 23-year-old son loves nothing more than to snuggle up with his iPad and read the Economist or the New Yorker. Mom still likes the print versions, so it’s perfect. For the price of one subscription per magazine, everybody gets what they want.

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