Yesterday, President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of tax fraud, bank fraud, and the failure to disclose a foreign bank account. At the same time, POTUS’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to campaign finance violations. Sadly, children will be exposed to the news of the political shitshow, and talk of impeachment or removal from office will probably freak them out. After all, kids have a notion of the presidency as a position of power but lack the command of civics to understand what’s going on. Luckily there is a good, nonpartisan resource that will help parents talk about the presidency thanks to the National Constitution Center. It’s a lovely goodnight story as the presidency teeters.
Sadly, I wasn’t aware of said resources at the dinner table last night when my 7-year-old exclaimed that a president could not be arrested. What followed was a clumsy conversation about presidential power that ended with my kid deciding the president should be put in jail for “hating brown people” — a hatred my son had been told about by a Mexican-American friend who rides his bus.
The whole event led me to the swift realization that neither I, nor my kid’s bus friends, nor his first-grade teacher (priorities being what they are) was great at teaching civics. And, at this particularly chaotic moment in presidential history, my kid could use a civics lesson. So I set out searching for teaching materials that would help.
Suffice it to say there are a lot of bad teaching tools out there when it comes to the American presidency, particularly for younger children. Some are just too simplistic to be any use. A good example of the phenomenon? Scholastic’s read-along page “What Does the President Do?”, which devotes an inordinate amount of words to the pleasures of Air Force One. Other online teaching materials offer a dangerous lack on nuance, like the many lessons that suggest “the president is the leader of our country!” simply “hired” by the American people for the job. No discussion of check and balances. No discussion of sharing power.
Representative democracy is crazily complicated so it’s understandable that media for kids wouldn’t dive too deep on the stuff. Still, it’s worth making that effort — if for no other reason than no one knows what’s going to happen next politically and knowledge will make news reports less frightening to kids.
That’s why I’m here to fanboy the National Constitution Center’s “We the Civics Kids” materials, which do a fine job of bringing a simple constitutional perspective to the presidency. Of particular note is a downloadable PDF “magazine” featuring a smiley cartoon Lincoln. It is short, sweet, nuanced and easily understood by a grade-schooler and it gets to the point swiftly.
But how does the pdf examine presidential power? After reading through a short history of the constitution I reached this sentence regarding the founders: “They also decided on a leader who would share the power with the other two branches of government, the states, and We the People.” That’s exactly the sentence I wish I’d had in my pocket for my impromptu presidential dinner discussion.
Because that’s the point isn’t it? In all of this chaos, it’s important for children to know that the President shares power both with Congress, the judiciary, and us, the people. That’s a powerful bit of knowledge to carry around in your kid brain, regardless of your parents’ political beliefs. In acknowledging that the power is shared, the NCC materials offer a strong reassurance in the continuity of power: It’s always held by the American people. The president ceases to seem like a powerful leader operating in a vacuum or a chump that can be fired for hating brown people.
The beauty of the NNC’s material is that it is constitutionally based and, as such, bipartisan. The lessons can be embraced regardless of the level of panic, anger, or ease over the president’s current predicament. It’s an island of reason, perfect for kids to stand on, as the country shifts uneasily.
The only way it could be better is if it were updated. The materials were created during the 2012 election. In political years, that might as well be the last century. But while it would be nice to have modern references beyond Mitt and Obama, the core of the material is timeless. After all, it’s based on the constitution. If only my kid’s bus friend were a constitutional scholar.