Is it okay to preach politics to our kids?
On the perils of trying to raise a liberal or conservative child
"They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you" — so Philip Larkin famously observed about parents. And it's true, we do. But even if I accept that my children will inherit my wife's tardiness or my neurosis, there is one thing I've always been reluctant about passing on: my political views.
My eldest is now at the age where she is developing an awareness of the world, and as they all get older I struggle to answer a larger proportion of their questions fairly. At this point how much does one hold back on giving them opinions when they're not quite ready to form views themselves, and cannot see through their parents' ideological biases?
My reluctance to offer my own views is partly shaped by seeing other people and the way they pass on their politics like a family religion. Around the time of the last U.S. election, Jessica Valenti wrote about watching with her daughter, who "fell asleep on the couch, still wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word 'feminist' and an 'I voted' sticker."
The anti-religion crusader Richard Dawkins has always opposed faith schools on the grounds that children can't be "Muslim" or "Christian," and when I see people describe a 6-year-old as a "feminist" I see his point. My argument against Dawkins would be that religion is a tradition. It is inherited even if it can be abandoned later in life. To baptize a child is to bring him or her into your community. Perhaps for Valenti, feminism and progressive politics is her community and her religion, just one with a far higher retention rate than the Catholicism I was raised in.
That's fair enough. And yet ... religion is supposed to be about the capital-T Truth, and at least until the recent modern era, believers were supposed to hold that their faith alone contained it. Politics is not about the truth, not really, and the major downside of religious decline is that as political identity and community has taken the place once held by faith, so we have increasingly seen the growth of ideological sectarianism. To raise a child in a political-faith community is inevitably to tell them, to some disagree, to think of non-believers in a negative light.
But the counter argument to non-indoctrination, from a conservative point of view at least, is that children will inevitably be influenced by the school system, and even more so by the wider culture, which has a progressive bent. I imagine the bias in London's state school sector is even stronger now than when I was a boy, progressivism being the de facto faith in secular education, with just 8 percent of teachers in the U.K. voting Conservative.
Most children's books and television shows exult liberal ideals, the centerpiece of this culture being the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings of the progressive narrative. I also have a lovely Michael Morpugo version of the Pied Piper story at home, which is all about a small elite of pink-faced rich people monopolizing wealth at the expense of the many. At one point the protagonist turns down a huge amount of money because, he says, "when one man becomes rich, 10 others become poor."
"You know," I explained to my daughters, "that just isn't true. That's the fixed pie fallacy! He should read Milton Friedman!" They were 4 and 3 at the time.
Children are easy to indoctrinate, which is why I find all those twee narratives citing the points 8-year-olds make — "gender is just a word we use," "we're all human, there shouldn't be borders" — so strange. Kids will repeat whatever grown-ups tell them, of course. Personally, I'd cringe if one of my offspring said something clearly parroted from me, and I'd also be quite happy for them to be liberal while they're young and able to enjoy life, since conservatism is more of a burden than anything else.
Besides which, our ability to inculcate our children with our views could be limited since our politics — like the five big personality traits — might be heavily influenced by genes.
I just hope fiscal responsibility isn't recessive.