How do I explain election year to my son?
As we drove into town the morning after the New Hampshire presidential primary, my 7-year-old piped up from the back seat, “What’s all that noise on the radio?”
“It’s people talking about an election,” I told him. “Our country is voting for a new president this year, and some people think a woman might win this time.”
My son gasped. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “I hope it’s not you.”
I puzzled over that for a second, then realized my son considered becoming president something that could just happen to you with no warning — like waking up with a leg cramp or getting hit by a snowball.
“I don’t think it will be me,” I assured him. “You have to ask people to vote for you if you want to be president. And this one woman who wants to be president has a lot of people voting for her right now.”
He thought about that for a minute as the radio chattered on.
“Is she a mom?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” I said. “She has a daughter.”
“Well, then she doesn’t have time to be president,” my son declared.
I laughed. “Her daughter is a grown-up who has her own house,” I said. “She would have plenty of time to be president.”
My son mulled this over a while, then extracted from me the promise that he will never have to move out of our house — not even when he becomes a grown-up, not even if I become president.
“No problem,” I said. “You can stay as long as you like. I could use your help in the yard.”
As what looks to be an interminable election year slogs into its second month, I envy my son’s nascent perspective on the whole thing. The last time our country went through this, he was 4 and preoccupied with backhoes, firetrucks and Blue’s Clues. He has no memory of the rainy November day in 2004 that I recall so vividly, in part because our roof sprung a leak just before John Kerry conceded.
This year, my son is about to be 8 and has a tendency to ask impossible, intelligent questions. He is, for example, amazed that neither a woman nor a person of color has ever been president, and he wants to know why. He also wants to know why our country is at war and, more to the point, when we won’t be anymore.
I answer these questions the best way I know how — and probably not very well judging by a piece of schoolwork he brought home recently. On wide-lined paper, my son wrote a little description of his country as very strong, with a lot of tanks and at war over who is going to be the next president.
“Um, we’re not exactly at war over the next president,” I said, wondering at what point I lost him in my explanations of election time and war time. “We’re at war in a couple of countries very far from here, and we’re having an election here in the states to decide who will be our president.”
“Aren’t a lot of people fighting over who’s going to be president?” he asked evenly.
“Yeah, but they’re not fighting with guns or anything,” I said. “They’re just having a contest.”
“Who do you want to win?” he asked.
I sighed. “I really don’t know,” I said. “There are so many hard things happening in our country right now, it’s difficult to know which person is the best one to help make them better.”
My son wandered away to mull this over, which left me thinking about 1980.
In 1980, I was 8 years old and Ronald Reagan was running for president. My father, a deeply faithful conservative back to the time of Barry Goldwater, leaned over my bed late on election night to whisper in my ear, “Reagan won.”
“Good,” I mumbled, knowing only that my father liked this Reagan guy and that he was happy.
I don’t remember asking any questions about race or gender or war or even about what an election was. I was just happy for my dad.
Which leaves me to wonder how my son will recall this election year, the first he’ll remember and one in which the stakes are so high in so many ways. It’s clear he knows something big is happening.
But maybe he’ll just wake up on Nov. 5, relieved that no one voted for his mom.