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Red Kids, Blue Kids: Politics for All

Your 2-year-old may love saying "Barack Obama," but do your school-age kids understand why you think he should be president?

Who are the "good guys" in your house? The Republicans, or Democrats?

In this presidential election year, when our former governor is fighting for the White House and the senate race in Massachusetts has a sharp national profile, the air is thick with politics. Like secondhand smoke or background TV, after months of exposure to ads and grown-up conversations, our children have likely absorbed opinions in all shades of red and blue.

But with just about a month to go (whew), do your kids know which side mom and dad are on?

Perhaps if they are very young, you’ve been able to confine their media world to Dr. Seuss. But for older children, you may want them to learn an age-appropriate amount about a prevailing national adult conversation which (most days) mercifully doesn’t have anything to do with violence or sex.

Yet it is too easy to oversimplify political contestants to "good" and "bad." As adults, when determining our votes, some of us will stick with our party registrations and call it a day. Others will hone in on their most important issues to decide. Then there is the small percentage of voters the candidates are trying to reel in, and in those homes, maybe "good" and "bad" is not so clear to the kids. But how much teaching do we have patience for when it comes to explaining why we prefer Brown to Warren, or Obama to Romney?

At a party recently, one dad told a story about how his kids voted in a school straw poll and found out they were alone in choosing McCain. The children were about six and seven years old at the time, and I wonder how much they understood about the man. Did they know he was a war hero? Is the father of seven?  That he championed campaign finance reform, or just that mom and dad wanted him to win?

My kids may think I’m talking about the car if I mention civics: The teaching and learning about being an involved U.S. citizen is considered to be in only fair health. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been actively campaigning for the past few years to "reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation," according to her website, icivics.org. In the Boston area, CIRCLE, a research center at Tufts University that studies civic education, says that "youth who have civic learning opportunities are more likely to follow a positive academic trajectory, which can include staying in school and preparing for college."

But for schoolchildren in Boston Public Schools, Robby Chisholm says that the work of BPS on civics learning has ambitions beyond what’s in their classrooms now, "and in that way, we’re out ahead" of what may be happening nationally. "I think BPS absolutely has an emphasis on it," says Mr. Chisholm, director of social sciences for BPS.

There’s a nod to civics in the Citywide Learning Standards for every grade level: In kindergarten, the goal is for students to “give examples that show the meaning of the following concepts: authority, fairness, justice, responsibility, and rules.” By eighth grade, students are required to take a full civics course. For 12th graders, a four-year-old elective, "Civics for Boston Youth," is now offered in about 10 high schools. “This year is the largest cohort we’ve had, teaching and experiencing it,” says Chisholm. Developed with partner organizations, the course concludes with a “participatory action and research project,” which sounds like the prescription for engagement that research shows can benefit students academically and empower them in their own communities.

This month, Chisholm and his small team of administrators will visit every BPS school to encourage participation in the National Student/Parent Mock Election. On Nov. 1, students and interested parents and teachers in participating schools will cast ballots for president, highlighting the voting process and the power of one vote.

Schools and teachers do their job when they remain nonpartisan at election time. But at home, politics for kids shouldn’t be a matter of unquestioned loyalty to family, as if being a Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Green, were the same as being a Red Sox fan. You may hope and expect that your kids end up wearing the same campaign buttons as you, just as they enthusiastically cheer for the same sports teams. But if we want our children to learn to think for themselves and do so critically, we need to involve them in the more complex reasons why we’re on one side and not the other.

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