`WHO is the president of the United States?'' seventh-grade teacher Bill Harvey asked his students. He's tall and bearded, Lincolnesque-looking himself. ``Write the name on a piece of paper and turn it in.'' The class had just finished reciting the pledge of allegiance and were now seated again behind their desks.
In the newspaper that morning Mr. Harvey had read about a survey conducted in Maryland and Washington, D.C., of 180 students, aged between 7 and 12, who were not able to name more than five past presidents.
He knew his kids were smarter than that, but just for fun, he decided to confirm his optimism and their knowledge. He repeated the question but rephrased it: ``Who is your president?''
Their responses squashed his appraisal of their political smarts.
Ten out of the 40 students left their papers blank. The class joker wrote down ``Nancy,'' and the rest gave the right name or close to it: Ragun, Raygun, Regan, Raegin.
``I can't believe this. When I was in elementary school we all knew who was president,'' said a disillusioned Harvey. ``Our problem - as well as many of the radio commentators' - was whether to pronounce it `Rose-e-velt' or `Roos-velt.'''
Many people would agree that this ``presidential illiteracy'' is cause for an alert. Parents and schools overestimate what children know about politics and government.
In regard to politics, some people would argue that it really doesn't matter until the children are young adults. But most will agree: Kids and politics should mix.
In the last presidential election year (1984), only 53 percent of eligible voters in the country cast their votes, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service.
And with many 18-year-olds not taking advantage of their franchise privilege, maybe Americans should be asking the question, Dare we risk a new crop of voter dropouts?
The consequences of political ignorance are great: millions of apathetic Americans who feel uncertain about what they think, who feel that their vote does not matter, and who remain cool in the heat of political passion. The American character has changed when people are afraid to go out on a limb even in the privacy of a voting booth.
Nevertheless, parents can instill a zest for the political process in their children, who won't be able to resist involvement in the issues of their generation.
Take this year's presidential campaign - and tomorrow's election - for example. There's enough hoopla to compete with Disneyland: the celebrities, the bands and patriotic songs, the name-calling, and even the red, white, and blue mountains of balloons with the politicians dressed to match.
Television records it all. For a change, parents can use the sights and sounds of the screen as an ally to make couch politicos of their kids. Whatever political shenanigans grab their attention, use them to begin a discussion. Instruction works best when it begins where the learner is.
For instance, all children love jokes and cartoons. Considering the age of the child, parents can tell one of the current jokes about the candidates they think he will understand. Or they can cut out to-the-point political cartoons from the newspapers.
Then, after warming up the ``audience'' with humor, they can get down to some of the more serious issues surrounding the political campaign.
First a note of caution: In discussions, parents shouldn't put down children's opinions. They need to respect them. Explain why opinions may differ. Be careful not to make fun of what children have to say. Otherwise, parents may soon be carrying on a monologue rather than a discourse.
Here are a few questions to ask:
Should school grades matter if you want to become a presidential candidate? Or, for that matter, any political office?
How old do you think a presidential candidate should be?
Should candidates' school records be required for public disclosure, as are their finances?
Is it all right for parents to use whatever influence they have to help their children?
Would you want to be a candidate for a political office?
Would you ever want to run for president?
Another current campaign issue that children could easily relate to is the pledge of allegiance. Why not ask them if they think its recitation should be a requirement in the classroom?
In talking to young people about this, I say, ``I would add these words to the pledge: `and as a good citizen I will work for liberty and justice for all.''' I want them to know that it takes more than lip service to make these ideals a reality. The same hand that salutes the flag marks the ballot.
Like all other parents, I hope my children will share my beliefs and values. Remember this saying? ``Parents, watch where you walk - your children are following in your footsteps.''
The majority of young adults adopt the same party affiliation as their parents.
One parent told me, ``I remember when I was very young, helping my father pass out Alf Landon buttons on a street corner. And it seems I have been passing out buttons ever since.''
Not all parents, however, realize how much influence they exert over their children. Talking politics is but one way to stimulate their interest.
Here are other strategies that might help:
Discuss what's on the ballot before inviting your children to accompany you to the polls.
Drop in with the kids on an election-eve hotel gathering of partisans.
Encourage teen-agers to do volunteer work at a candidate's office.
Use the voting process to decide family issues at home - majority wins, of course. As a foster parent to nine children, I found that more issues were resolved this way. And as a teacher, I encouraged the class to employ this democratic procedure.
Have you ever thought about taking the children to a city council meeting? This brings politics closer to home.
When you write a letter to your legislator about some problem, before mailing it, read the contents to the family. By example children will see how their parents take a stand.
Junior politics. Encourage your child to run for a school office.
Other controversial questions can be asked, such as:
Should ballots be printed in different languages?
How do you feel about a woman president?
Through engaging in this kind of table talk, insight can be gained about what children know and think about government and its politics. Their opinions will change as they take in more information, and this intellectual growth needs to be nurtured.
All this effort would be worthwhile, if making children more politically aware resulted in their increased concern about - and action for - the welfare of their country when they became adults.
Beverly Feldman is a professor of human development, formerly with Los Angeles Valley College, and author of ``Kids Who Succeed,'' as well as several other books on child rearing.