Candy Land and Iraq
by Helaine Olen
My six-year-old son Jake's questions on returning home from school usually involve the vast amounts of chocolate he claims many of his classmates are allowed to consume. Nonetheless, when he greeted me the other day by asking, "What's the bad president?" I should have been better prepared.
We live in brownstone Brooklyn, where conservative is defined as someone who shops for their organic produce at corporate-run Fresh Direct instead of the Park Slope Food Co-Op. We had managed to dodge kiddy questions during last year's presidential election since Jake's class instead voted on Mother Goose characters. For the curious, Mary Had a Little Lamb trounced Miss Muffet.
I had gotten complacent, always a bad parenting strategy, especially when, like me, you don't navigate hard questions gracefully. It took me months and a therapist's intervention to 'fess up to Jake that his younger brother really wasn't put in my tummy by a stork. When he asked about the word "Saddam" after hearing it on NPR, I informed him the former Iraqi president (like a headmaster but he runs a country instead of a school) had neglected to buy the children of Baghdad enough toys. My one attempt at honesty, after two local children died in a car accident, resulted in my son sobbing at bedtime for several nights running that he didn't want to go to heaven.
I had to do better. My family has always been reliably liberal, inculcating their beliefs in the next generation at a young age. Ask my father about his youth in the McCarthy era, and he recalls booing television sets playing the senator's hearings in store windows—after all, an uncle lost a job thanks to his red sympathies. In turn, I was made to watch evening repeats of the Watergate hearings instead of my preferred Happy Days. Raising a supporter of the current administration was not an option.
I decided to begin by telling my son that the president/headmaster of the United States was George W. Bush and that he ruled over many states like New York where we live and California where he was born and Disneyland is located.
Jake refused to be distracted. "Why is the president bad?," he kept asking.
Every year in nursery and elementary schools children and their teachers devise a list of rules the group is supposed to live by. Telling a teacher when you need to use a bathroom is a reliable standby, but most of the others can double as a guide to correct and right living for any age group.
"The bad president doesn't share," I blurted out, remembering rules as I spoke. "He doesn't play fair. He doesn't take turns. In fact, he's a bit of a bully and that's why some people say he's bad."
"Why doesn't he share?" Jake queried immediately. Sharing is a very big topic of conversation in Jake's social circles.
I couldn't figure out how to tell a five-year old about how tax cuts for the rich as military spending increases left the poorer parts of New Orleans and the surrounding areas bereft of needed funding for hurricane protection. So, I tried to bring progressive tax policy down to a five-year-old level instead. Not everyone has the same quantity and quality of toys, I said. When we go to the park, we let other children play with our buckets and trucks in the sandbox—not every child has a bucket or truck. The bad president, I said, doesn't think we need to share our possessions—our money—very much. In fact, he thinks we offer others more than we need to and that if we have toys and someone else doesn't, the amount we loan to others is optional.
"But it's bad not to share," Jake said.
"Well, you sometimes refuse to share your favorite crayon and chalk colors with your friends."
"But I do," Jake insisted somewhat disingenuously. "A president has to share. I don't like him."
So far, so good. I next decided to tackle the politics of weapons of mass destruction and declaring war under false pretences in preschool terms. "So," I continued, "the bad president doesn't cooperate with his friends. If he wants to do something, he just goes ahead and does it. For example, if you are at Zoe's house and you want to play Candy Land and she doesn't, what do you do?"
"We play another game," Jake responded proudly, forgetting the screaming and crying that ensued the last time this happened.
"If you are playing Candy Land, it's very important to play by the rules, right?" I went on. This was a hopeful statement on my part. Generally, five- and six-year olds think other players should obey the rules—and that they themselves should play the way that ensures they get the most turns and end up the winner. Sort of like the bad president.
"Well," I said, thinking about examples like the Downing Street memo, "The bad president doesn't think the rules apply to him and what he wants. He'll even lie to get what he wants."
I wasn't sure Jake would get this point. Small children fib fairly constantly in an effort to control their world and get what they want. My son often tells one parent the other one forgot to feed him dessert and shows no pangs of conscience when caught out.
Children also dissemble when they are scared. I've sometimes suspected there isn't much emotional distance between Jake denying he took his younger brother's toy while holding it in his hand and George W. Bush's insistence that the situation in Iraq is improving even as the casualties mount.
In fact, I figured Jake would quickly turn and become a Bush fan if he realized how effectively the president's lying about such matters as the existence of weapons of mass destruction convinced people to do his bidding.
I decided to change the subject. "When Candy Land is over, you put it away," I observed. "The bad president never cleans up after himself."
The concept of tidying up is actually a complex moral equation, and one of the hardest tasks to get children to perform. It involves teaching a child to take responsibility for what he himself has done. Leaving a mess of toys for a mother or other sibling to clean up is a rude thing to do as is going on a budget-busting party, knowing future generations will have to pay the bill. Jake is furious when he's expected to put away his toys—but he gets even angrier when someone else is allowed to get away without performing the dreaded chore.
"He's bad," said my son.
This observation haunts me. My son, like many small boys, likes bad guys. Villains are interesting, villains are intriguing. Now I have a new fear, one straight out of Family Ties: that Jake will rebel as a teenager not by sneaking cigarettes and staying out past curfew but by hanging up posters of Katherine Harris, Tom DeLay and Jeb Bush.
It's enough to keep a mother awake at night.
Helaine Olen is a journalist and essayist, as well as the mother of two boys. Her articles on parenting have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Helaine recently took on an Associate Profiles Editor position at Literary Mama. She lives in New York.
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