Embarrassing Obama Kids

What do you do when your child’s partisanship is too extreme?

A trick-or-treater passes some Obama posters

In our soccer carpool of 8-year-olds on Saturday morning, the trash talk was about Tuesday’s election, welded onto the trick-or-treating of the night before. It went like this:

Dylan: You went over to the McCain side of the porch?Siddhartha: I just wanted to see what it was like!Eli: Traitor!Siddhartha: But they were giving out more candy over there!Dylan: Traitor!

Witness the harsh and sometimes hostile partisanship of the sweet liberal children I know. In our town of many academics (New Haven, Conn.), Yale economist Dean Karlan used Halloween to conduct an experiment about the voting preferences of 551 kids who showed up on his front porch as Paul Revere and Albert Einstein and pirates and bandits and armadillos and Chinese dancers and ladybugs. Karlan set up a big McCain sign and a life-size cutout of the candidate on one side of his porch, and a big Obama sign and the corresponding cutout on the other. A squad of graduate students sat behind two tables, recording the kids’ ages, genders, and responses. We live in a blue neighborhood in a blue city in a blue state, so it’s not surprising that when given a straight-up choice, about 78 percent of the kids chose Obama. About the same proportion of New Haven voters cast their ballots for John Kerry in 2004.

To make things more interesting, Karlan and his minions asked a second group of kids (randomly selected, naturally) a different question: “You can get two pieces of candy from the Obama table or four pieces of candy from the McCain table. Which do you prefer?”

The McCain side of the porch picked up some kids like Siddhartha—the self-maximizers or chocolate-lovers or free-thinkers of the group. But Obama’s support dropped only about 10 percentage points, to 68 percent. Most of the kids, like Eli and Dylan, stuck to their partisan guns. Karlan calls these results “strikingly inelastic,” meaning that doubling the McCain incentive seemed to move few kids. This is a liberal version of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas thesis—the kids voted against their own economic (or at least acquisitional) self-interest because of a perceived cultural benefit that offered more psychic reward. Karlan points out that because there was a line at the Obama table, his results probably understate the Obama preference because “the candy acquisition process took longer”—the kids couldn’t snatch their candy and greedily run to the next house. One more wrinkle: Kids below the age of 8 weren’t moved by the promise of extra candy. Thirty percent of them went to the McCain side of the porch whether they were offered two pieces of candy for McCain or four. The 8-and-up kids, however, chose the Obama table 92 percent of the time when the candy offered was equal and 73 percent of the time when McCain meant more chocolate.

Maybe Siddhartha and the other defectors understood that their McCain “vote” wasn’t really a vote at all, whereas the younger kids didn’t. And maybe Dylan and Eli are just stalwart: They claimed they would have stuck with their choice when I asked them whether they would have gone for the four pieces of candy if Karlan’s house had been the only one giving out chocolate that night instead of just one stop along the Halloween Milky Way.

I suppose I should applaud the strength of their convictions. But the dark side to their partisanship is the traitor-bashing. Our kids are raised on a steady diet of tolerance, but, given the chance, they signal allegiance by turning on whomever they can pin as a bad guy. They don’t get many chances at that, really. There just aren’t a lot of enemies in their lives. Railing against McCain supporters functions as a safe outlet for hostility and even hatred. For my sons Eli and Simon and most of their friends, die-hard Republicans are an abstract concept. They know people who differ from them by race and ethnicity and religion, and they get that it’s not OK to judge by those categories. On their soccer team are kids who are working-class rather than well-off, and I think they also understand that class isn’t a flag to rally around either. They may have met a libertarian or two, but they’ve never talked politics with a serious conservative.

And so I fear the election is teaching them not only about the joy of supporting an appealing candidate but also about the more vicious pleasures of despising the other side—with a zeal that’s usually off-limits to them. Also during the soccer carpool, the kids discussed a pumpkin with Obama carvings that had gotten smashed, and one of them said, “It must have been those McCain-loving teenagers.” Which led to a gleeful discussion about fighting back with bombs and guns. I winced. As did one of my colleagues over drawings her 3-year-old son did at synagogue this weekend. At first, he drew a stick figure with its arms raised. “That’s Obama,” he said to nobody. Then the stick figure reappeared, lying prone. “Dead McCain,” he muttered.

Storefront mannequins with Obama masks, decked out for Halloween

This makes us feel like terrible mothers because of the mirror our kids are holding up. Thinkers who debunk the influence of parents over their children’s personalities, such as Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, note that political preference is one domain in which parents’ views do matter to kids. The opinions they hear parents express may have only a temporary influence, but the communities they grow up in, which parents choose, have a more lasting effect. For those reasons, as well as some contribution from the genes they inherit, kids with liberal parents are more likely to be liberals themselves, and the same goes for conservative lineage. This is fine with me. But I’d like to see my kids expressing a purer, nobler version of my political preferences, not a baser one. As is often the case, the shimmering ideal of childhood innocence doesn’t last long in the face of real kids. Instead of presenting me with a thoughtful, gentle version of the values my husband and I like to think we transmit, my kids are at the moment showering us with rancor.

In an effort to pull them back from the partisan abyss, I showed my kids the utterly winning video of the kids from the Ron Clark Academy of Atlanta who are singing, in a nonpartisan friendly fashion, about how “You can vote however you like.” After watching this interview with them, Eli triumphantly pointed out that they are almost all Obama supporters. “Now can we watch that video where they say that John McCain talks like a dump truck?” he asked. Oh well. At least it will all be over by the time they finish eating their Halloween Obama candy.