LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - My eldest son made his first public political statement at the tender age of three. It was just after President's Day and his preschool teacher asked if he could name the current president.
"George Bush," he said. "He's a bozo."
True, it was petty name calling. But seeing my son quoted in the school newsletter, I couldn't have been prouder. He not only had the right answer, he'd come up with what I felt was an impressively concise characterization of our commander-in-chief.
Never mind that the dear boy had no idea what he was saying, that he had no way of understanding the actual policies that contribute to Bush's bozo-ness. He had a hard enough time using a fork.
But if he was fuzzy on specifics, he clearly grasped the essential truth of the man. And so, like many other parents on both sides of the political divide, I fanned the flames of his partisanship. He could barely write his own name before he'd learned to say "universal health care."
At an Obama rally before the California primary, I hoisted him on my shoulders in the hopes that he'd get a little CNN facetime. It was ridiculous, but I couldn't help it -- all my familiar old convictions sounded so fresh coming from him. No one wants to hear a twitchy minivan dad rant about carbon emissions; the same material regurgitated by a fuzzy-haired kindergartner could soften the granite heart of Dick Cheney.
Of course I'm not the only parent to exploit his children for political gain. Parents now involve their offspring in politics like never before.
From mommy-and-me trips to campaign rallies to debates on the Nickelodeon series "Kids Pick the President," children are entering the political arena earlier, and with more fervor, than ever. "KIDS TALK POLITICS" "Kids get as worked up as the pundits on cable news," says Ken Sheetz, who interviewed more than 250 kids for his documentary "Kids Talk Politics," which can be viewed at www.kidstalkpolitics.com.
Argument at one group discussion erupted over "which candidate stunk worse," he says.
"One kid yelled that McCain stinks worse than poop. That pretty much ended the debate."
Kids now sport T-shirts printed with slogans like "Little Liberal," "Weepublican," "Bush is my homeboy,"or, for the more theoretical political thinkers on the playground, pictures of Noam Chomsky or Ayn Rand.
Meanwhile infants slobber into bibs with faux-crayon fonts declaring "Babies for Barrack" or "I only cry when Democrats hold me."
For some parents, dressing up their kids in political attire and coaching them in killer talking points is harmless bonding, no different than teaching them a favorite Beatles song or dressing them in a Yankees jersey.
Other parents take the sloganeering more seriously. For these true believers, the intensity of the current election isn't so much about politics as it is about core values. And imparting those values to their kids is what parenting is all about.
I fall into this second category. I' gotten so wrapped up in the epic nature of this election that I feel it is my fatherly responsibility to make sure my kids, ages 3-9, fully appreciate the inconsistencies of McCain' energy policy. The miracle is, they listen. In fact, they absorb it with such ease and eagerness that it' lately led me to question the very basis of my beliefs.
After all, where did all these grand ideals of mine come from exactly? As much as I'd like to think my politics grew out of careful consideration, the truth is that the bulk of my ideals were formed in childhood, listening to my mom talk about civil rights and apartheid, the Sandinistas and nuclear disarmament.
I was thankful for the high ideals, less so for being sent to school in a florescent green T-shirt printed with the full text of the Equal Rights Amendment.
I picked up politics the same way my kids are today. They aren't so much learned as they are imparted, passed down, transmitted via an intimate family rite.
Which is both depressing and heartening.
Depressing because it suggests political beliefs are based mostly on indoctrination. Heartening because it underscores how personal politics can be, how our families are so deeply embedded in the most unlikely places. So I'll keep on talking to my kids about why this election matters so much. But I've learned my lesson. I'll try to leave some breathing room for them to make up their own minds. And most importantly, there will be absolutely no florescent green T-shirts.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith