Yesterday, my almost five-year-old asked me about Donald Trump. Used to hearing me muttering to the radio and amused by his surname (come on, whether you're 5 or 45 you've got to laugh at his surname) she wanted to know exactly who he was. The conversation went something like this:
"Donald Trump! Who is Donald Trump?"
"Ermmm.... well, he's a man. With an important job. But he's not very nice."
"What's his job?"
"President of the United States of America. A bit like being the headteacher at a very big school."
"Why's he not nice?"
"I don't know. He says nasty things. He wouldn't be a good friend."
"Not everyone is nice mummy. Maybe he needs to sit and think about what he's done."
Not everyone is nice mummy. Quite. Out of the mouths of babes and all that. Satisfied with my half -baked response and happy with the idea of the president-elect sitting on the naughty step, she went back to her spaghetti hoops.
I, on the other hand, was left feeling more than a little dazed and confused by the exchange. What bothered me wasn't her interrogation but rather my own stumbling response. I teach, write about and advise others on all things political for a living and yet I was completely unprepared for her interest. Until she asked, I hadn't considered how I might talk to her about this, or any other area of politics for that matter. How do you explain current world events to a child (once upon a time, there was a man called Donald and a man called Nigel. They lived in a big, gold, tower...) especially when there's no fairytale ending to sugar coat it? And in my current land of parenting, this stuff is pretty far down my 'to do' list. Persuading her to share with her sister is, right now at least, a more pressing concern. But our exchange got me thinking - how young is too young to get political with kids?
A survey by the polling company YouGov found that it's not until the age of 15 that a majority of people think it's ok to have started encouraging a child to take an interest in politics. At the other end of the scale, The Election, a picture book explaining how voting works, is recommended for children as young as four. Momentum Kids, a youth wing of the pro-Corbyn, Labour movement, is aimed at children as young as three and younger people were especially animated about the Scottish Independence and EU referendums. So where do we strike the balance? Should we engage children in current affairs earlier in life? Or is the increasingly toxic world of politics best left to the grown-ups?
On closer inspection, YouGov's research suggests that when you decide to engage your kids in politics depends on where you decide to put your X in the voting booth. Voters for left wing parties are more likely to think that it's ok to encourage children at younger ages, with nearly a quarter of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters thinking it's appropriate to have started politically encouraging a child by the age of 10, compared to 10% of Conservatives and 8% of Ukippers. But despite what you decide to reveal or hide, kids are capable of understanding and interpreting things for themselves and when something sparks their interest, they want to get involved. The Facebook group #Kidsletterstotrump displays letters written by children to the president-elect, asking him to be kind and the brilliant First News and The Week Junior show that political news can be made age appropriate.
Political role models don't have to be politicians. Right now, I'm telling my daughter all about Meryl Streep's and Viola Davis's inspiring words at the Golden Globes. Or how about Scottish schoolgirl Martha Payne, who's "changing the world, one school dinner at a time" with her food blog and herculean fundraising efforts for children in Malawi. Whether or not you love or loathe a power ballad, it's hard to argue with George Benson or Whitney Houston singing "...the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way." We need the next generation to strengthen our democratic institutions, develop us socially and economically, build and sustain peace and look after us in our old age. But first, we need to engage and inspire them politically. Political ideology starts with thoughts, feelings and beliefs and our own views and preferences are already present in our children's lives in a multitude of ways. We decide where and how to educate them. We pass on our religious beliefs or cultural customs or family baggage. We merrily make deeply personal and often divisive decisions on their behalf, based on what we believe is best for them.
Around the world, children's futures are dictated by policy making from the moment they are born and some are born into the most devastating political situations imaginable. I want my children to know that they were dealt a good hand at birth. I want them to know that not everyone gets so lucky with their deck of cards and that the way we treat others in need of help is ultimately, how a society should be judged. So on reflection, maybe I'm not talking about getting kids to be politically active. Maybe I'm talking about encouraging children to care about fairness, equality and justice. Maybe it's about teaching children to respect basic human rights. But as the prospect of hard Brexit looms and with Trump's Presidential Inauguration ceremony almost upon us, even our fundamental human rights are a political football. And that's why we need to coach our junior team. If we want to drag politics out of the gutter, investing and believing in the next generation is a good place to start.