Opinion: We have a moral duty to get political with our children

David Prowse as Darth Vader

David Prowse as Darth Vader - Credit: Archant

As well as educating children about the processes of politics, we shouldn’t be scared to tell them what we really think, writes Matt Gaw.

It’s almost a year now since I told my eldest son, now aged six, that voting for a certain political party is a vote for the forces of evil.

Driving to school during the lead in to the European elections, he had noticed a vast number of coloured posters in people’s windows and asked why they were different from the one tacked up at home.

It was a simple enough question.

But concentrating on the road and irritable from the unrelenting horror of the school run, I answered too quickly.

“I really don’t know. Voting for them is like voting for Darth Vader; no one with any sense or hope for the future would do it.”

I wrote at the time how parents (including my own) said they felt cautious about expressing their own views and unduly influencing their young offspring. Some seemed to think that politics should be fenced off as an adult topic.

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Others said that although they thought it was important for children to understand political processes, they didn’t really know how to make the abstract concept of democracy tangible for someone who is more interested in Charlie and Lola than Cameron and Clegg.

It is precisely this audience that author and journalist Ellie Levenson is targeting with her new book. Illustrated by Marek Jagucki and published by Fisherton Press, The Election follows a family through the build up to an election, through the leafleting, the conflicting views, the voting and the losing.

Written in response to questions that Ellie’s own young children asked during last year’s election, it is entirely non partisan (there are no references to Star Wars villains) and is designed to explain the democratic processes to pre-schoolers and those in the first years of primary school.

“There are some non-fiction books for the older market, but nothing for the younger market. But I think we respond to issues and stories at the level that we are able to respond to them, a 4-year-old understands it at 4-year-old level,” she explains.

“All the rhetoric in the media and from lots of non-political people is that politicians are a separate entity and they are not like us. But in a democracy where politicians are representative that shouldn’t be the case.”

But there was also another motivation for Ellie putting pen to paper.

“I also wanted to normalise voting so kids don’t grow up thinking that voting or participation or even standing for election is something that other people do.”

It’s an important point. Because while I admit I was glib in summoning up the image of a Sith Lord to represent the views of a certain political party the act of having a conversation with children about politics and helping them recognise their own existence as political, is vital.

I also agree that this dialogue should cover the basics of the processes of democracy in a way that children understand. But a political education should go further. I believe that we, as parents, have a moral duty to explain our values and beliefs to our children in a way that will help them to be healthy, happy, well-adjusted and progressive individuals.

We go through life indoctrinating our children in endless ways and as we hammer home messages about how to cross the road, saying please and thank you, we should also be offering political guidance – explaining why and where the principles of fairness and tolerance (something easily understood by children) are expressed politically and flagging up the dangers when they are not.

But this isn’t a case of political brain-washing. Yes, I’m sure my kids will be influenced by what I have said politically, but it will be a basis for their decisions rather than the final word.

Although, having said that, I hope as my son and daughter grow up they will realise for themselves that the system of values we have been trying to instil over the years wasn’t too wide of the mark.

What is certain though, is that with the likelihood of the age of voting dropping to 16 by the time my generation’s children are in their teens, it has never been so important to talk political turkey. After all we can’t and shouldn’t expect young people to turn out to the ballot box with a clear view on complex issues just because they are of a certain age. Political views form gradually, through sensible discussion and careful thought.

And who knows, maybe it won’t just be the kids that are being educated. When grandparents and parents are forced to boil down their political beliefs to explain them to children, perhaps they too will have a change of heart and realise that voting for Darth Vader isn’t such a good idea after all.