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Voices: Explaining Politics To My Kids, Despite Negative Ads

A Texas mom wants her kids to grow up civically minded, but has to explain the barrage of negative ads to her fifth grader.
File photo of a political ad on one of the televisions at Gusano’s, a downtown Little Rock, Ark., restaurant.
File photo of a political ad on one of the televisions at Gusano’s, a downtown Little Rock, Ark., restaurant. AP, file

HOUSTON, TX -- “Mom?” asks my 10-year old. “Is (name of a political candidate whose name we hear more and more frequently on television) bad?”

“Mmm,” I answer puzzled. “What makes you ask that?”

“Well,” she says in a matter-of fact tone, “that’s what they say on television.”

“Oh! I see,” I answer, as it dawns on me that, as we approach the November elections, having to listen to political advertising is something that both adults and children have to deal with. It’s clear to me that while she may not know much about politics, she understands that these television commercials are very different than the advertising she’s accustomed to seeing.

The question catches me by surprise since our family is not politically active. In fact, I wish we were more in tune with the candidates, their platform and their position on the issues that affect us directly. I wish I knew as much about local and national politics as when I was a news reporter, and I could write about certain candidates in my sleep. These days, as I share the same roof with a mother and a husband who are fiercely Mexican, I feel I sometimes know more about Mexican than U.S. politics.

Interestingly, Martha, my fifth-grader, is taken by the ads that mention how one candidate supports standardized tests for kindergarten and wants to increase their number as well as his support for cutting education spending. At that point, I realize the message has struck a nerve and sparked her curiosity.

So, at seven in the morning, in pajamas and with “eggs-or-cereal-for-breakfast” on my mind, I make the conscious decision to answer her question. It would be easier to just say, “No, he’s not bad. Now, brush your hair and come downstairs.”

But I’m not passing up this opportunity to connect with my daughter and answer her question. So, I sit down on the couch in front of the television, trying hard not to show too much interest. If she realizes I’m interested, the magic will be gone. “Who do you think was behind the words and images you saw behind these commercials, mamita? Do you think it was this candidate?” No answer.

“These commercials were created by his opponent, by the other candidate who is competing for the same job,” I explain. "Because, who in their right mind would say something bad about themselves?” Martha’s eyes get bigger. Okay. We are getting somewhere. “Sometimes candidates say bad things about their opponents so that we, the people who will vote for or against them, have negative perceptions of them. This candidate who they are saying bad things about has his own commercials. But, notice how he talks about himself very positively.

“He talks about how he has overcome his challenges and how, only through hard work, he has accomplished his goals. His commercials are about him and about what he believes in. Who do you think is bad?”

The clock is ticking. At that moment, we realize that if we continue, there won’t be time for eggs or cereal. Yet, she listened. Without saying a word, she nods her head as she starts heading downstairs. No more discussing politics for now. It’s too early in the morning and we all need to head our way.

As I kiss her on the forehead, I know that, from now until the November elections, the political ads will only grow in frequency and intensity. I can only hope that my “casual” explanation will one day help her make sense of the negative messages she’s been watching and hopefully motivate her to take a more active approach to politics than I’ve taken these last few years. That afternoon after school she asks: “When can I run for student council?

Perhaps, I did get somewhere.