Mark Knickelbine's youngest son, Jack, couldn't have been more than 4 years old the day his dad's car radio was tuned to a discussion about the war in Iraq that referenced Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, which at the time ruled the country.
"My son just thought that was the funniest thing in the world - the idea that these people would be having a party in the bathtub," Knickelbine recalls. "It was a little difficult to explain to a 4-year-old about the Baath Party, but I told him it was spelled differently."
The incident "drove home the fact that he was thinking about what he hears. We sometimes assume the grownup world goes on above kids' heads, but it really doesn't. They're trying to make sense of little things they hear."
That was a valuable lesson for the Mount Horeb father of three, who also sits on the executive board of the Democratic Party of Dane County. "It's like anything else about raising kids," says Knickelbine. "The most important lessons they get from their parents are observing what their parents do, for better or for worse."
That's a worthy reminder as presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain head into the final stretch of their historic candidacies. Raising curious, civic-minded, well-informed children requires parents to take their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy to a new level.
Children pick up on their parents' political attitudes as early as age 4 or 5, says Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political science professor at UW-Madison whose courses include "Political Psychology" and "Citizenship, Democracy and Difference." She says studies show that kids who come from homes in which adults are politically active and regularly vote typically follow in their parents' footsteps.
Plus, "It's kind of hip to be into presidential politics these days," Cramer Walsh adds, referring to Obama's technology-driven campaign that targets high school and college students. Rock the Vote, meanwhile, is still going strong after nearly two decades, this year with the support of Fall Out Boy, Jakob Dylan and N.E.R.D.
Many kids will understand political issues and the political process - if given the opportunity, says Cramer Walsh. "Politics should be part of everyday life in a household," she says. "Too often politics is equated with something that you're not supposed to discuss in polite company, or as something dirty. I think that's part of the problem. I wouldn't want the type of household where we sit around bashing other political groups, but I would like to talk about public affairs in the same kind of tone we talk about what's going on with relatives and the weather."
Such topics as gas prices, the war in Iraq and even gay marriage have become part of pop culture, which may make it easier to open dialogues about some of these issues.
But the way parents tackle these topics with their kids - especially the touchy ones - depends on the adults' own political ideologies. "If you think gay marriage is immoral, I can see how you wouldn't want that to come up," Cramer Walsh says. "If you're of the belief that it is something that should be sanctioned, then I think it ought to come up."
Dave Baker, assistant chair of the Republican Party of Dane County, adds that it's also critical for kids (and their parents) to realize that some political and social issues may not mix. "It's like sex," he says. "Kids are going to hear about it somewhere, so let them get your take on it. I think it's still very important for parents to instill in their children what they feel are important values."
"Any issue that arises in a campaign, and that kids become aware of, should be addressed if kids are interested in it - no matter how controversial the issue is," says Richard Merelman, professor emeritus in the UW-Madison political science department. He's conducted research about how children develop an understanding of politics, and he encourages parents not to stifle their children's interest in the subject.
Instead, when faced with questions from inquisitive kids about how the political process works or why people disagree on many important issues, Merelman suggests parents first explain that individuals can have opposing viewpoints on the same issues and still be "fundamentally decent people." Then outline the main differences between the major political parties "as you understand them," and share the reasons why you believe one particular party or point of view makes more sense than the others.
"Kids can understand that parties align themselves with certain groups of people or ideas," Merelman says.
"When it comes to things like 'liberal,' 'conservative' and 'partisanship,' parents can set kids along a path. Kids may deviate from that path, but parents generally lay out the terrain and push kids in a particular direction."
Liz Schmidt, vice chair of nominations and elections for the Democratic Party of Dane County, encouraged her son, now 18, to bring up any political or social issue with her - including abortion and the death penalty. "He would say, 'I heard this, I thought about it, and this is what I think,' and then wait for my reaction."
While Schmidt admits she doesn't always agree with her son's political stances, she realizes that he's at least taking a stance and that kids' perspectives can change as they get older and more independent of their parents. "I know that I cannot necessarily change his mind," Schmidt says.
It's during those times of disagreement, says UW's Cramer Walsh, that a parent will be tested. "It's very difficult to keep an open mind," she says. "So I'm hoping if my views will be different from my daughter's that I'm a big enough person to learn from her and listen to why she thinks what she does."
The message is clear: Do not ignore or discourage even the slightest interest young people show in finding out more about our political landscape; take advantage of it.
During primary season, 7-year-old Mara Kolberg wanted to know why her father, Andrew, went door-to-door in the family's town of Sun Prairie neighborhood to discuss the issues. "I told Mara that we were supporting a candidate that would be setting the direction for the country and that it was very important that we pick someone who has the country's best interest in mind, and that he or she was going to follow the Constitution," says Andrew Kolberg, membership chair for the Republican Party of Dane County. "She asked what the Constitution was, and I told her that it was like the rules we set for her and her sister. She understood."
Rules of engagement
Most political campaigns do not have official roles for individuals younger than 16. But that doesn't mean you can't begin raising politically aware and civic-minded children today. Here are eight suggestions to get started:
Tell your kids the names of your local, state and federal political representatives and research their positions on issues of interest to your family.
Read the newspaper, watch television or listen to talk radio together. Discuss news of the day and how it affects your lives.
Explore presidential campaign issues on the candidates' websites. Barack Obama has a section of his site specifically for kids: my.barackobama.com/page/content/kidshome.
Attend a political rally. Prior to the rally, discuss some of the issues that might be addressed. On the way home, encourage your kids to ask questions about what they saw and heard.
Drop off campaign literature for your candidate of choice in local neighborhoods.
Attend as a family one of the annual picnics sponsored by Dane County's political parties.
Put this year's election in perspective by teaching kids about the founding fathers, how the electoral process evolved and the role of government in society. For assistance, visit the National Center for Constitutional Studies at nccs.net and the National Archives at archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college.
Bring your kids along with you to vote on Election Day.