My husband and I loaded our children, Jack (age 7) and Reid (age 5) into our car the morning of the Durham primaries, knowing it was the first time since we moved to Durham that we would be electing a new mayor. Prior to the primary, my husband and I had multiple conversations about our candidate of choice – but looking back, I realize we were not having those conversations with our kids.
The reality of the lack of dialogue hit me like a ton of bricks when we walked up to the polling station and were approached by one of the candidates, whom I knew from my old job at UNC-Chapel Hill. I introduced him to my children and shared with them he was running for mayor. He was delightful and full of smiles and energy despite the early hour of the morning; he shook both of the boys’ hands and gave them each a leaflet about his campaign. My children skipped behind us to our polling station, stood with us as we received our ballot and peered over our shoulders as we marked our votes. Jack seemed particularly interested — he peered at my husband’s ballot and glanced back at the leaflet in his own hand. Then back to the ballot. Then he came over to me and did the same, glancing back and forth. He was realizing we were not voting for the candidate outside, who was kind and warm – who my children had just met. Jack’s eyes got big and watery, he began crying asking why we weren’t voting for his new friend. I gave him a hug and told him we could talk about it in the car but that we couldn’t speak in the ballot box. As we walked to our car past the candidate, I could see Jack’s tear stained face and quivering lip.
Once buckled up, Jack cried and shared his confusion.
“But you talked with him, mama.”
“But he was so nice and you know him, mama. You’re his friend.”
“Why didn’t you vote for him? I thought you were voting for him?”
I explained to my son that we decided weeks ago who we were voting for and there were lots of reasons why we did that.
“Why? What are the reasons?”
I shared my best summary without getting too far in the weeds, that there was another candidate who I thought had more experience and a better chance to getting things done in our city. I added that all the candidates were good people and good at what they do, voting just gives me the chance to say who I think will do the job best.
He was still confused, my husband tried a different tack, “Jack, if you had to pick just one player as the best wide receiver in the NFL this season between Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham, Jr. who would you pick?”
Without much hesitation, Jack responded “Michael Thomas.”
My husband said, “I agree, but just because we picked him today doesn’t mean OBJ isn’t good. In fact, they are both very good but one does seem better when you compare them today, right?”
“Yeah, they are both really really good. But I just think Michael Thomas is a better football player.” Jack confidently responded, adding that Odell Beckham Jr was injured.
“That’s what we did today when we voted” I explained. “It’s a primary, so we aren’t sure which candidate will make it to the run-off when we vote again. But today, we voted for the candidate we thought would best do the job.” With a look of satisfaction of understanding, Jack nonchalantly put on his headphones and listened to music as we drove to school.
This exchange made me look back on my childhood and how politics was an intensely private activity. Once at the dinner table, I remember asking my dad who he voted for in the Bush/Dukakis race. He responded firmly but gently, that asking who someone voted for is no one else’s business, and the question should not be asked. This closed off all political conversation in our family, (although the Newt Gingrich calendar in our kitchen seemed to betray his desire to not have his politics be known). I believe messages about the taboo of politics were messages he received throughout his life and might be still commonly held today by many people and families. But not talking about politics only failed to equip me to make decisions about who our leaders should be and how to engage openly about public life and leadership. I don’t remember voting in a presidential election until I was 23 years old. Thanks to conversations with friends and colleagues, I have the changed the ways in which I engage in politics at a variety of levels.
I hope to encourage my children to ask me about the people who want to be leaders in our community, state and nation. I hope to be vulnerable with my own questions about candidates or lack of understanding of issues. I hope they will be interested in learning more about how to make an informed choice but also how to question each other in a way that builds shared understanding – the kind that keeps us questioning what we believe in healthy ways.
Later that night, Jack asked who had won the vote from earlier in the day. The polls hadn’t closed yet and I told him I didn’t know. I told him there would likely be a run-off and a chance to vote again in a few weeks. I did my best to echo the language from the conversation earlier in the day, reminding him we get to choose who we think would be best for the job and depending on who got the most votes it might be someone entirely different than who we voted for that morning. For today, Jack drifted off to sleep dreaming of his favorite football player. That day, Jack drifted off to sleep dreaming of his favorite football player, but maybe the lessons of that morning will seed future dreams of how he can participate in shaping the community we call home.