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Activist in the Making

A couple of days ago, my daughter left for school, just an average, six-year-old first-grader. She came home a political activist. Nicole and several kids were playing on the jungle gym after school, when one child was approached by a yard monitor and questioned. It turned out the child did not attend the school, but was playing with his friend who did. The child was informed that it was against the rules for children from other schools to be on the play structure and he was asked to come down. In response to that, some of the children, led by a militant third-grader, created a petition. They went around the school yard gathering signatures to give to the principal, requesting “fair and equal access” to the play structure for all children. When Nicole came home from school, she was bubbling over with excitement about the petition. She wasn’t even quite sure what a petition was, but she was certain it would right what she personally considered an egregious wrong.

I was both delighted and amused to see her so energized by their actions. I listened to her feelings about the school jungle-gym rule and asked why she felt motivated to do something about it. We talked about other rules in her world that, as she said, “didn’t work for her,” and discussed ways in which she might address those issues.

Later that evening, after she related the story of the petition to her father over dinner, suddenly, every rule or request that “didn’t work for her” became an item for debate. She mistakenly thought our home was a democracy, and believed that if she lobbied hard enough, eating vegetables or going to bed at 8:30 could be done away with through a vote or a petition. She enlisted her four-year-old sister, Natalie, in the effort, getting her to vote on whether they should finish the green beans on their plates. Natalie’s hand shot up quickly against the green bean consumption and they cheered with delight, certain that their vote had swayed us. Again, I was amused…until after the tenth item was brought up for a debate.

As Nicole geared up to protest over her appointed bedtime, I explained to her that although we live in a democracy and she has the right, and, in fact, the obligation to speak out against things that she feels are wrong, she does not always have that privilege at home. She looked at me confused and said, “You mean you and daddy are the kings and get to make all the rules?” I nodded. Then she crossed her arms and stomped off to bed muttering, “That’s not fair!” Natalie, in sympathy protest, huffed off behind her, adding her preschool outrage to the cause.

A lot of things aren’t fair in our world…and in hers. But parenting is not a democracy. To survive it (both parent and child), parenting must be treated as an oligarchy--a state governed by a few--or else chaos (and spoiled, overweight children with bad teeth) will result. I didn’t want to put a damper on Nicole’s budding political activism. I liked that she felt empowered by their playground organizing, as if their petition had real strength to create change. And who knows, it might. Although sometimes it feels as if in the United States, we live in a country governed by a few, the midterm elections are a recent reminder that those who govern are responsible to the will of the people. And the successes of the numerous campaigns undertaken by and other groups are important and powerful examples of average people working together to bring about reform. A gathering of voices puts those in authority on notice that there are concerned and passionate people watching and willing to take a stance about what they are doing. Our leaders need those frequent reminders that if the people aren’t happy, they will exercise their constitutional right to vote and vote them out of office. As my editor reminded me, luckily, kids don’t have that same right or else many of us parents would be voted out faster than you can say, “Because I told you so…” These are difficult things to convey to a child, but it’s a seed that once planted, is destined to take root and bloom.

I have no doubt that Nicole will present me (and her school) with more petitions over injustice. There have already been grumblings from Nicole and her Fashionista Party…I mean friends…about attacking the “no open-toed shoes” at school policy. I just hope the principal is ready for them!

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