“Mommy, why do we have an orange sign?”my three-year old inquires as we head out the front gate to walk the pugs. Unbeknownst to my son, he’s just asked his first-ever political question. Nothing slips by him unnoticed these days: he’d spotted the election sign the moment it had appeared on our front lawn, only days into the federal campaign. He’d since pointed out similar signs lining the main roads on our way to preschool – some orange, like ours, some red and some blue.
What he really wants to know is, why don’t we have a blue one – not that he has a clue about Stephen Harper or what an election is, but because blue is his favourite colour. In spite of our efforts to avoid perpetuating age-old gender stereotypes, he himself has gravitated towards blue. Blue is the colour of Thomas the Tank Engine, after all, who, in my son’s esteem, is far more important than the likes of Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Elizabeth May put together. On those rare occasions where parliamentary affairs pre-empt his morning dose of Kids’ CBC, he comes crying to me to “fix the TV.”
So, how to explain to our little guy that even though we, too, like blue, we categorically don’t want a blue sign on our lawn? That we feel quite strongly about having a bright orange one in its place, at least until May 2? How to even begin to describe the electoral process to a three year-old who has no concept of “government” and “democracy”? As far as he’s concerned, his two moms are his entire world, the ones who cuddle and care for him, shape his days, set limits, and offer him structured choices. He knows he lives in a place called “Canada” but this, in his mind, has stronger associations with his red Olympics hoodie and the “Go Canada Go!” chants from the 2010 Winter Games than with our federal government and the boring parliamentary debate that sometimes overrides The Doodlebops. As for Ottawa, it’s the place we travel every summer in a “big, big airplane” to visit Grandma and Opa. Government aside, how to explain “voting” in age-appropriate terms, other than to say “pick the one that you like best?” And why, in this case, that translates to orange?
“See how our sign has letters on it?” I hastily improvise. My son’s at that stage where he’s obsessed by the alphabet, so I seize upon this as an opening. “It’s somebody’s name.”
“Oh, yeah!” he exclaims, pausing to trace the largest letters with his fingers. “D-A-V-I-E-S!”
“Yes,” I say. “Davies. Libby Davies.”
“Libby Davies,” he parrots.
Indeed, we have thrown our support behind the long-standing NDP incumbent in our East Vancouver riding, the first (and so far, only) openly lesbian MP to serve in the House of Commons.
“We’ve put up Libby’s orange sign because she’s the one we want to pick,” I explain.
“Because she’s the one we like best,” I answer cheerfully, inwardly cringing at how lame this sounds. “She’s done a good job at looking after all the families in our neighbourhood for a long, long time,” I continue. “AND Libby and her orange team are really nice to families like ours – families with two moms.”
“Like Mommy Sara and Mama Manda?” he asks.
“You’ve got it.”
It’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but it’ll have to do. I leave out the part about the blue team not being so nice to families like ours, and the nasty, hateful things they said about people like his moms as we fought for our right to marry a few short years before he came into the world. Never mind the fighter jets and the American-style tough justice (along with the building of massive prisons with my hard-earned tax dollars), and the secrecy and corruption and proroguing of Parliament… Or that our family, like many others, got screwed over when the Conservatives axed the National Child Care Program (our monthly UCCB payment from the feds barely covers a day of child care while I teach part-time).
My son, oblivious to these complex, adult concerns, runs ahead down the sidewalk in his blue Thomas boots, splashing in puddles. He takes it upon himself to count all the other orange signs on our way to the park, keeping track on his stubby fingers – “Nine, Mommy!” – nary a red or a blue one in sight.
Our real discussions about politics are sure to come later, when he’s a bit older. However, this unexpected test run has given me pause. How do you raise a voter without imposing your own political agenda on your kid? (I have flashes of the mock federal election staged in grade five during the Trudeau era – each and every kid voted for the party favoured by their parents. Pierre won by a landslide.) Then again, how can you not? Our political views are inherently shaped by our morals and values, after all, the same morals and values that we impart to our children on a daily basis. As a queer family, simply being “out” in the world is a political act – one my son didn’t choose for himself but that will undoubtedly shape his world view. He’ll either grow up to be open-minded and accepting of differences, perhaps even a champion of social justice issues, or he’ll rebel by becoming the most ultra-conservative, anti-gay person imaginable.
My own brother became a political junkie at the tender age of eight, when he knocked on doors with my mother in support of a mayoralty candidate who attended our family’s church. Whether or not my brother would vote for this same guy in the present tense is a moot point – his engagement in the electoral process from an early age has made him not only a conscientious voter but a career political scientist. Now the father of two small children, my brother reminds me that the best way to raise a voter is to let the message come organically from my own practice. To take my son with me when I go to the polls and let him watch me mark my ballot with an X, just like our own parents did when we were kids. To keep on talking about that sign on our lawn, and the other ones that line the streets. And, as my son grows older, to explain my practice – and my political views – without making it sound like my opinions are the only way to think about things. (He also recommended cartoonist Tom Tomorrow’s children’s book, The Very Silly Mayor – which we’re trying to get our hands on before May 2 and, if not, before the provincial and municipal elections which are sure to follow later this year…)
In the meantime, my son keeps on counting the orange signs around the neighbourhood. He was the first to notice when ours got stolen, along with several others on our block – and the first to point out when they reappeared, after I’d put in a call to the campaign office. On May 3, he’ll remain blissfully unaware of any changes sweeping our country – he’ll just be sorry to see the signs go – but at least he’ll have had his first, small taste of the electoral process.