"Isn't encouraging and helping children believe in themselves one of the basic responsibilities of parents?" I thought as I read Alexandra Petri's column, "The Convention Speech You'll Never Hear" in the Washington Post. Petri attempted to be funny by overemphasizing the successes claimed by the candidates during the recent political conventions. "Your children will never be president," she said. "How can they? The instant they open their mouths to tell their life stories, they will be paralyzed with embarrassment."
In fact, parents have a great opportunity during this political season to talk to their children about leadership, accomplishments and responsibility in a way that encourages them that their achievements will get them places.
Petri poked fun at the candidates and their speakers, but not in a very funny way. Our kids, she said, could never make the grade. "By Day 4 of the conventions, I yearned to hear a speech that would make me believe truly anyone can be president."
She felt that "unless you overcame at least insuperable obstacles before age 8, you are out of the presidential sweepstakes." She claims that suburban children "who faced no obstacles less daunting than forgetting their soccer cleats before practice gazed aghast at the television set" during the convention speeches. Her presumption was that they would be deterred from their dreams that matched their parents' claims that they could "be anything they wanted."
Ms. Petri and I evidently listened to different speeches.
I thought Romney and his supporters seemed to be people with fairly normal values and motivations, although above average achievements. Both candidates certainly spoke about their accomplishments and goals and made references to their families and experience. Nothing about the speeches told me that either candidates' skills and undertakings were unattainable for someone who wanted to work hard, give up her privacy, be persecuted by the media, and have every action evaluated with a high-powered microscope.
But those aren't the things kids notice or worry about – they see the big picture.
Wouldn't it be great to be on TV and ride in a limo and live in a huge house and know so much and travel all over the world and be able to stay up as late as you want and eat candy bars all day long? Older students obviously get the real picture a little more clearly, but shouldn't have heard a message of discouragement. They would likely be more disenchanted by the low pay relative to the sacrifices a president must make.
In any case, did kids even watch the convention? The candidates spoke at 10 to 11 PM EST. It was too late for most kids to stay up. In weeks when many were already back at school, the older ones had homework to do.
So how many people really watched the conventions, anyway? According to Jazz Shaw on Hot Air, the Democrats had 35.7 million viewers across all networks on the night of the president's speech, down 2.7 million from 2008. The night Romney spoke at the Republican convention, 30.3 million viewed, down 8 million from 2008. At the time of this writing, there were 314,340,445 people in the United States. That means no more than 10% viewed either candidate's speech on television.
The messages children will get about being president, then, will come from their parents, not from the conventions.
If you are interested in encouraging children's interest in becoming president, So You Want to Be President is a delightful book, suitable for children 6 and older, written by Judith St. George and creatively illustrated by David Small. There is good history in it, and it contains some convincing arguments, like "The president never has to take out the garbage." (St. George also mentions President Bush's dislike of broccoli, which he didn't have to eat it in the White House.)
The most negative aspects of being president are that "The president has to be polite to everyone. The president can't go anywhere alone. The president has lots of homework." Nothing is said about having to be superhuman. The book is absent of qualifiers like Petri's.
And what kid wouldn't want to be president if it got him out of taking out the garbage, or rewarded him with an unlimited supply of candy, or she got to proclaim that beets would not be served at the White House on her watch?