River Dad, The Political Toddler

My son gets out of pre-school at noon, which was extremely inconvenient on January 20th because I wanted to watch the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I arrived to pick him up at 11:55 and joined the other parents waiting impatiently for the children to be sprung from class.

However, all thoughts of watching the Inauguration fled from my mind when I peeked through the window and saw my little three year old in the teacher’s lap, weeping.

Instantly, I switched from ‘proud patriot’ to ‘paternal panic’. Had my little guy fallen and hurt himself? Had one of the other kids been mean to him and was I going to have to take the offending toddler behind the tunnel slide and rough him up? Seeing me, the assistant teacher came to the door.

“He’s really upset. We all went down to watch the Inauguration on the computer, but the connection wasn’t working. He’s sad that he didn’t get to see Barack Obama.”

My jaw dropped. Sure enough, my little guy saw me and took a step forward, wailing “Barack Obama! I wanna see Barack Obama!”

Eventually, we got home and watched the speech on our DVR, but the incident left me with a nagging question: Why is my 3 year old so emotionally invested in Barack Obama? I mean… he’s 3. He’s supposed to be emotionally invested in Thomas the Tank Engine (and he is), not national politics. Has growing up in an admittedly politically aware household turned my children into pint-sized pundits? 

Or is it a sign of the times? Is a wave of political fervor sweeping our pre-schools and kindergartens? When I bring my son to a classmate’s house for a play date, the Mom and I can generally leave the two boys in a room of toys and retreat to the sanity of a cup of tea and adult conversation (usually about the kids, unless it’s my one fellow stay-at-home-Dad friend, Jeff, in which case we talk about baseball) as long as one of us peeks our head in every five minutes or whenever things get too loud or too quiet. Do they take this time, time when we assume they’re busy running a truck over their toes, to debate Cabinet-Level appointments?

“I’m excited about Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. He will look outside the box and help America begin the long-needed transition to renewable energy.”

“Plus, his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine character is Mavis!”

What’s next? Are they starting a PAC?

My daughter was equally energized by the Inauguration. Her entire school watched the ceremony live in the gym, sitting cross-cross applesauce in rows on the floor like a placid collection of cult initiates. After school, we went over to a friend’s house for a play date/Barack Obama Inauguration party. There were six kids between the ages of three and seven, and they spent the afternoon coloring print-outs of Barack Obama’s face, making red, white, and blue Obama sugar cookies, playing an Obama trivia game, reading the illustrated book, Barack, and giggling that the new president’s initials are B.O.

It was like a Beltway cocktail party with juice boxes instead of mojitos. My daughter and her friend gossiped excitedly about how gorgeous Michelle Obama looked in her dress, comparing it favorably to what she wore on election night. In fact, Mrs. O has been elevated in the pantheon of important women in my daughter’s life, vaulting right over both Snow White and her Kindergarten teacher, resting just below Mommy. Later that night, I had to interrupt her bedtime story so she could come out and see the dress the First Lady was wearing to the Neighborhood Ball.

I’m not sure how common it is for the 5-and-under crowd to be so hooked into the political world. When I was my daughter’s age, Jimmy Carter was welcomed to the White House, and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t a clue, nor care in the world. I was far more interested in Cookie Monster than the leader of the free world.

Why is this year so different? Why are my children, their friends, and kids all over, so tuned into Barack Obama? It’d be one thing if he had a hit show on Noggin or Sprout, but not even my seedlings watch C-Span.  I’ll tell you what I think. I think they’re feeding off our vibe. We all know this election was historic, that this is a pivotal time in our nation’s history. All of America is holding its breath, waiting to see what Change really looks like. Our children may not know why we’ve placed so much faith and optimism in this man, but they know we have. And I think that deep down they know we’ve done this for them.

We elected Barack Obama with the hope that he can help us build a safe, sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. After all, this is going to be their world before too long. If the celebrity of President Obama gets them interested and involved in the political process earlier than previous generations, then they have a head start in running it.  Every generation needs heroes to inspire them. The crazy fact is that right now, the President of the United States is as important to my three-year-old son as Thomas the Tank Engine.  Well, almost.

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About the Author: David Neilsen