What Do Kids Know About Politics?

Imagine most kids in this country start kindergarten able to do basic math — like multiplication and division.

Imagine that instead of teaching them more math skills, our schools instead teach about mathematicians: famous mathematicians, how mathematicians get jobs, what mathematicians do at mathematics conferences. That would be weird, right?

Yet that’s exactly how we teach our kids about politics.

Last week, I was at a local park and nearby two boys were playing. They were maybe 5 and 7 years old, and they mostly argued. Said the younger kid (I wrote it down): “It’s American football and whoever gets the trophy it’s only one, okay? It’s only one.”

I have no idea what that was about, but they went on like this for ten minutes or so. It was hilarious and adorable, but also totally typical. Kids that age tend to be preoccupied with making rules for their games.

And making rules is what politics is all about. The kids in my park were learning how to make rules — how to be political.

In Dr. Spock’s famous baby book, he writes that by age six kids are “no longer interested in make-believe without rules. They want games that have rules and require skill[…].” This interest in the rules gets more intense as they age: “A group of eight-year-olds is likely to spend more time arguing about how to play a game than they do actually playing it”.

In a book titled Play, psychologist Catherine Garvey writes for children of this age, rules are both how they structure their play, and also a toy for them to play with:

Play with rules, in both senses, appears at an early age [….] We can speculate that by playfully violating conventions or testing limits — especially those imposed by the consensus of the peer group — a child not only extends the knowledge of his own capabilities but also learns about the nature of social rule systems.

That is, the child learns how to make rules, how to break them, and how those rules make up their social world. And just as children are beginning this stage, we put them in school — where they are taught to follow rules, not make them.

Adults spend a lot of time trying to teach children rules — whether the games and activities at school, or organized sports on weekends. Kids then have few chances to make and choose their own rules.

One alternative school in Colorado did exactly that; in this report from the school, ‘people’ refers to small children.

A number of people today proposed that it would be cool if we had no rules. So we agreed that we could try having no rules in the mush room. Most people did try it out for a least a bit. People did try out some cursing, really rough play, putting “hard” items like shoes and water bottles in there and even sand and rocks. After a while people were getting bumped into or hit with pillows and balls, and it got very messy. We ended up having a meeting afterwards to see if people wanted to propose keeping the idea of NO rules and we had an overwhelming majority of thumbs down, disapproving of the no rules suggestion.

Kids learn pretty quickly that rules help them structure their lives to avoid conflict and violence. Kids learn on their own how to make basic rules, but when it comes to formal politics, schools tend to teach kids that their skills are irrelevant.

Now imagine how much better they would be at making and choosing rules — as students, as adults, as citizens — if our schools could instead teach them to use and improve their skills.

Why don’t we? Because our understanding of politics is bogged down in the myth that it’s something only politicians do. Coming back to the math analogy, it’s as if we pretend there’s no link between the math kids already know and the top-level calculus that mathematicians do.

The people who study politics rarely connect what politicians do to the everyday politics that each of us learn and practice. So there are few books or classes to teach it, much less curriculum for schools to put in front of students.

There’s a reason our national political scene looks so childish and inept: most people in this country never get a chance to learn political skills, outside of the playground. But if the point of public education is to prepare students to be engaged citizens, we should be more deliberate about teaching them how to make and keep rules.

We should teach politics as a skill necessary for democratic participation. We should teach kids that their capacity to make rules really does matter.

Our kids start school primed and ready to learn about making rules. We should stop teaching them politicians, and start teaching them politics.

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