The parenting of politics

Those of us who had old-time manners drummed into us were taught that you didn’t discuss sex, religion, or politics.

Times have changed, children learn more about sex at school than I  knew by the time I went to university, religion is openly debated, and asking people who they are going to vote for is de rigeour.

So, how do you talk to your teens - or even tweens - about politics? My children sucked up politics with their mother’s milk. My son counts among first of the generation we rosily call the “born frees”. Conceived after the elections he was born in March 1995. That heady year when winning the Rugby World Cup confirmed our rainbow nation status.

His early years were informed by the natural euphoria that came from having Nelson Mandela as President, and while not everyone voted for the ANC they were pretty much the golden party.

So, it’s not that easy to deal with questions about voting now, or which political party to support. There are more grey cats moving through the political soup than black and white ones. It’s hard enough for adults to work out who the good guys really are, let alone explain that during the school run.

In the run-up to the April 22 elections the country has been beset by questions about Jacob Zuma’s fitness to rule, and you needn’t think that your children have not been discussing this at school, that dangerous place were muttered comments by parents around the dinner table are repeated as Gospel truth the next day.

My son Alexander, 14, is pretty sussed. He doesn’t think that I should vote for the ANC because of Jacob Zuma. So we have had to unpack what we know about the man and what it takes to be a good president. A good starting point for me has been to try to explain basic principles, sort of Constitutional Law 101 in 15 minutes while stuck in traffic. Using Zuma as an example, we have talked about the concept of the presumption of innocence.

The kids got that one, but Alexander remained sceptical. “Okay,” he said, “he was found innocent of rape, but why was he sleeping with a girl young enough to be his daughter and why didn’t he use a condom?” I was interested in that question because is raised a moral and ethical question rather than a legalistic one.

I asked him if he thought that if people did silly things in their private lives, or downright dangerous ones like not wearing a condom for a one-night stand they wouldn’t be able to be a good leader of a country. He reckoned not, in his opinion leaders must display high moral values. In a funny way I found as I listened to his reasoning that he was being quite astute. He wanted a person with good values to run the country.

You will probably also be faced by questions about newspaper headlines. There have been accusations that political parties, particularly the ANC have been handing out food parcels to people during rallies to get their vote. Here we managed to have quite a good chat about interrogating the truth. Was the story true? Did it really happen? Did it matter if you tried to buy someone’s vote (big yes from all three kids on that). But then you might want to dig deeper and ask your children if it is also just a matter of coincidence that just before elections the delivery of housing and a variety of other services seem to speed up.

Given that the poster campaign for elections 2009 looks like a police line-up of faces on poles we have had more educational fun in using them as a means of practising translation from one language to another.  But they do give you the chance to talk to your children about the fact that none of them actually tell you what the party out for your vote is promising to do. Well except for the Freedom Front +, which seems to have come out promising to stop crime, not earth shattering but at least a hint of policy. We have all sadly agreed that the DA wanting to “Stop Zuma” is not that brilliant as the second wave of their poster campaign, after all said one child “it would be odd if the DA told us to vote for Zuma”.

It would be more comfortable really to return to the days of not talking about politics but as that is not going to happen, these seem to be the critical points of discussion for me: why you need to know what the party you are going to vote for stands for, if it’s important to you that you like the person who will lead the country then find out all you can about them. Stress that exercising your right to vote is vital.  Be careful about tossing out generalisations like “if Zuma wins we are moving to Australia” they will probably be repeated at school. Inform yourself so that you can explain things to your children.

And perhaps most importantly remember that living in a country is not only about the people who run it, we need to build a strong civil society if we expect South Africa to continue to thrive. If your children aren’t learning that at school they need to be learning it at home. Politics is far too important to be left to politicians.

What do you tell your children about politics?

Read more Jennifer Crocker
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