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Skipping School for Democracy (OPINION)

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

The editors of Parents.com have been reporting on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we chose three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them offered a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Nancy French

“My eye itches,” eight-year-old Camille said one morning as she rolled out of bed.

“Scratch it,” I said without looking at her. It was a cool March morning, and my husband and I were headed out of town for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, where we were “working” the first Presidential straw poll of the 2008 season. Even though it was two years before the election, I’d spent the last few months trying to get people to vote for Mitt Romney. No, not Matt.  Mitt. And yes, he’s from Massachusetts. People hadn’t heard of him, so I’d tried my best to persuade them to vote for him instead of any of a number of southern politicians.

“But it hurts,” she protested. I put down a bag of buttons that read “Romney – Yankee Governor with Southern Values,” and looked at her. Her eye was swollen shut.

My stomach sank. Pink eye? I’d planned to take the kids to school, and the babysitter would pick them up afterwards. I didn’t have childcare during the school hours, and I couldn’t send her to school looking like she’d been hit in the eye.

“Well, I guess you’re both coming with us,” I said, as I dropped medicine in her eye.

The next day, my husband and I found ourselves standing in a convention center, handing out tee shirts, pamphlets, and talking to anyone who’d listen about the guy we hoped would be the next President of the United States. “Mitt,” I’d say. “Like a glove.” The kids happily played behind our table, laughing and putting Romney stickers on their faces.

“Want to help me hand these out?” I asked my six-year-old Austin, who dutifully stood at a busy intersection near the main hall and handed out buttons. Because it was the first straw poll of that election cycle, the press corps was out in full force, and soon Newsweek had a camera on him.

“Who are you supporting, young man?” the reporter asked.

“Mitt Romney,” Austin nervously responded.

“Are you skipping school to do this?”

“Yes, he is,” I interrupted, “but Romney believes in education.”

That was when my kids were thrust into the political realm in which our family has lived in for the past seven years. In an amazing upset, Gov. Romney came in second place in that straw poll, causing a media frenzy. Other straw polls followed, and this time we made sure the kids were with us. They skipped school to help us work the 2007 Values Voter Conference straw poll in Washington, DC (which Romney won), and the next 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference (which Romney won), and the 2012 Conservative Political Action Committee (which Romney won). We also created an organization called Evangelicals for Mitt, and our Romney advocacy work has appeared in almost every major news publication, including the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, and FoxNews. At every turn, the children were with us — with a bag full of buttons ready to distribute.

Since we began our Romney effort, our family moved two times, went through a deployment when my husband went to Iraq, and adopted a daughter from Africa. Yet, all of this went on against the constant backdrop of a single goal: getting Mitt Romney into the White House.

Instead of sheltering the children from politics, we decided to let them fully engage in the process. At first, this was difficult, and I occasionally had to yank them out of speeches — for example, when Ron Paul talked about abortion or Newt Gingrich spoke about gay marriage. After all, they didn’t need to learn about these topics before memorizing their multiplication tables. But over the years we explained the issues. Just as naturally as shooting basketball in the backyard, we discussed immigration, contraception, terrorism, and education reform. We taught them how the government works… and sometimes doesn’t. Some parents choose not to “indoctrinate” their children about issues of faith and politics. However, we believe it’s our responsibility to transfer our values to our children and to help them think critically about the issues of our time. Democracy, after all, demands engagement.

Over the past few years, they’ve learned not only about politics, but about the world. They’ve witnessed events in person, only to read mischaracterized accounts in major newspapers. They’ve seen their parents maligned in the mainstream media and even in some conservative publications. They’ve experienced little victories, and crushing defeats. My daughter now is taller than I am, borrows my clothes, and can eloquently explain the difference between Romneycare and Obamacare in four easy steps. My son, who was terrified of the Newsweek reporter, has since happily appeared on CBS News. And our newly-adopted daughter fell immediately into our fast-paced political lives. When I took her to an event close to Christmas, she leapt into Gov. Romney’s arms. As a photographer snapped a photo, I was almost overcome. She’d recently been an orphan in one of the poorest countries in the world…now she was being embraced by someone who might soon be President of the most powerful nation on Earth.

What a country!

As I wrote this, my husband and I were on a flight to Boston to the official election night celebration of the Romney/Ryan ticket. The children were in the row behind us, chatting anxiously, playing on their iPhones. Though we thought we were going to a victory party instead of a disappointing concession speech, we’re thankful we’ve done this together, as a family. And by the way, if the headmaster of Zion Christian Academy is reading this, the kids will be back to school on Thursday.

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Looking Forward to Post-Sandy Humanity in a Second Obama Administration (OPINION)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The editors of Parents.com have been reporting on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we chose three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them offered a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

The moment has finally arrived and, as with all much-anticipated events, Election Day isn’t what I once imagined it would be. Way back when this race was first getting going, it seemed like we election watchers would stay singularly obsessed with the race to the end. It almost seemed like time would stop on November 6.

But, as with all points on the timeline, the Big Day brought with it a new future, as well as present that wasn’t quite what I expected. I still desperately want Obama to win, of course. I’m already glued to the battleground election results. And I can’t stop checking Nate Silver’s blog, which, as of this writing, puts Obama’s chance of winning at 90.9 percent.

But it’s perhaps because of my faith in Silver that I’m already looking ahead. And there in the post-election tomorrow I see not just a country where we don’t have to discuss legitimate rape, Paul Ryan’s abs, or the idea that 47 percent of the country really doesn’t matter. I see a country where people care for and about the needy in a new way.

No doubt, a large part of this is Hurricane Sandy. While this may be just another election day in parts of the country less affected by the storm, here in the New York area, things are still decidedly not back to normal. Thousands of people are still without power, homes. Food and fuel are scarce. And another storm is on its way.

The beautiful thing, the compelling thing that can’t help but push the election to the back burner once you witness it, is the kind, humane and authentic response real people have to the disaster. All around me, neighbors and friends have jumped in to help, collecting coats, blankets, warm food. During the worst of the storm, a home health aide made her way against all odds from the Bronx to Brooklyn to care for my dying father-in-law. After making her way back through our ailing transit system to her own family, she called to check on him.

Sandy is, of course, a wake-up call about the importance of climate change and the size of government, FEMA in particular. But it’s also a reminder of the ties that bind us to one another and how, despite the ugliness of this election season, they have turned a nation of little folks overshadowed by politicians into one where the actual people clearly matter more.

The impulse to look out for one another is so much more compelling than anything either candidate has said, it’s made the past few months of bickering and lies seem even more heartbreaking than it actually was. Looking at the people lined up at my polling place, waiting for hours to cast their ballots, I’m heartened that, despite everything — the storm, the meanspiritedness, the endless political ads — people remember what really matters.

So on this Election Day, I’m getting on that long line and looking forward to a second Obama administration that, I truly hope, will honor and support the real needs of real people.

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What I Will Teach My Children About Our President (OPINION)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The editors of Parents.com have been reporting on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we chose three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them offered a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Amy Julia Becker

Yesterday, I tried to talk to my kids about the election.

William, who is four, was setting out a game based on Richard Scarry’s Busytown. “So, William, do you know there’s an election tomorrow?”

He shook his head.

“Do you know who our President is?”

“Obama,” he said, without looking up, placing Huckle and Sally into their respective holders.

“Do you know what the President does?”

He shook his head again. “Mom,” he said, finally meeting my eyes. “I’m ready.”

I abandoned the conversation.

When Penny, who is almost seven, came home, I said, “Pen, do you know there’s an election tomorrow?”

She looked at me earnestly but also shook her head.

“Do you know who our President is right now?”

“Barack Obama.”

She went on to tell me that he should be president again because she loves him. She also made it clear that she has no idea what a President does, and when I mentioned that he lives in Washington, D.C., she promptly pointed to the state of Washington on the map of the United States. Clearly our family civics lessons are not up to par.

But then I thought back to my own childhood, and I realized that although I had a vague awareness of the Reagan/Mondale contest in 1984, the first election I can remember with any detail was in 1988, when I was eleven years old. One of my father’s best friends was working for the Dukakis campaign. My father is a lifelong Republican, so I was intrigued by the dinner conversations between these two. Up until then, I recall no interest in or even awareness of the political life of this nation. My kids may well be following in my footsteps.

After months of attending to this campaign, I plan to vote for President Obama today, and I hope I will have occasion to explain my choice to Penny and William in the years to come. I am voting for Obama because I think he is the more credible of the two candidates, given Romney’s history of equivocation on abortion, health care, and clean energy. I am also voting for Obama because I am liberal enough to support (in broad terms) his economic policies and health care reforms, and because I am conservative enough to think a transition will be more disruptive to our economy than a continuation of the past four years. Not only will I vote for Obama, but I think he will win, and I look forward to talking to my children about his victory.

But if Romney wins today, what I want my kids to understand won’t differ much. Although I suspect that Obama and Romney are more similar on many issues than their campaigns and fervent supporters might want, I know they are different men with different backgrounds and different policy positions. The reason my words to our children won’t change is that no matter who holds the office of the President, no matter their policies on economics or education or international relations, we will continue to live in the United States of America. And I will teach my children to be proud and grateful that they are growing up as citizens of this nation, no matter which man becomes the next President.

The wonder of American elections is that we routinely watch power transfer from one party to the next without fear of bloodshed. Sure, politics in America can look ugly. We’ve endured an election filled with attack ads that misrepresent both men’s positions. We’ve heard accusations of communism and racism and elitism. And yet Election Day comes, and each and every adult citizen of this nation has the opportunity to cast their vote, to participate in choosing the one(s) who will lead us for the next four years.

It will be a while before I’m talking with my children about the Constitution, or checks and balances, or the philosophical role government should play in the lives of ordinary people. But as a parent, I am relieved to think that I will go to bed tonight without fear. No matter who comes to power, our country will not erupt into civil war. No matter who comes to power, ethnic or religious groups opposed to the person in power will not be targeted for elimination. No matter who holds the highest office in the land, we will still share in common our constitutional rights, our declaration that each and every human being has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As my children get older, I hope I will do my part to educate them about American history and politics and economics and social issues. I hope they will watch Presidential debates and argue with me and with one another when it comes to defense spending and the minimum wage and abortion rights. But I’m also glad that they don’t need to pay attention to this election. I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America, and to rest secure in the integrity of this union, come what may.

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The Wake-Up After the Quiet After the Storm (OPINION)

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

I’m feeling grateful for having power, Internet access, a dry place to sleep. But even in what may be one of the least superstorm-affected houses in Brooklyn, things are not yet back to normal — especially from the kids’ perspective. The Halloween parade was cancelled. School has yet to re-open. Whenever someone calls from out of town, my boys hasten to share the terrible news that lodged itself in their uncomprehending brains: that two young people right near us were killed by a falling tree.

People talk about the calm before the storm. But, strange and upsetting as Sandy was, there’s also been a calm after this storm. Shaken free from our routine, we’ve been operating in a quiet bubble in our house, finding comfort in unlikely playdates, checker games, baking experiments.

We’ve also been enjoying a reprieve, if a short-lived one, from the election. I know I’m not alone when I say that the race between “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney was getting a little, er, wearying. (I admit I had moment of irrational fear that I had somehow magically caused the storm by screaming “Make them stop!” over and over during the last debate.)

But as I watched the sun shine over my leaf-strewn street this morning, it hit me that it’s time to wake up from the quiet after the storm. Given that the mere mention of political ads and “five-point plans” had become literally nauseating in the weeks before Sandy, it was a pleasant surprise to realize that I am not only ready to glance at the poll numbers today but also alive with a new urgency to fight to make sure Obama wins this race.

This coming Tuesday — THIS COMING TUESDAY! — is election day. And if Sandy left me with nothing else of value, it’s that this contest matters in a life-and-death way. The natural disaster brought two issues into sharp focus: the size of government and climate change. Both are issues that deeply affect children — and, at least when it comes to climate change, our children’s children, and their children’s children. And both are issues on which the political candidates have starkly different, potentially world-altering positions.

Mitt Romney, of course, believes in shrinking government. He’s made this clear with health care, which he promises to restore to its former state of dysfunction. He also believes in small government when it comes the safety net — or rather the elimination of benefits on which poor families depend.

And — try telling this to the child being rescued in this picture — he even believes in whittling down the government when it comes to disaster management. At least that’s how it seemed during the Republican primary, when he said he favors shutting down the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Wednesday, he came out with another position on the matter, which as Rachel Maddow points out, raises its own questions.

And then there’s climate change. Neither candidate has given enough attention to the issue. But Romney does far worse than ignore it, going so far as to mock  President Obama’s environmental efforts at the Republican National Convention.

Not surprisingly, his actual positions on the very serious matter of our climate are hard to pin down, as the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer notes. In front of some crowds, he says that he believes climate change is real and that humans have a role in it. While in front of others, like this one at a town hall meeting, he says essentially the opposite:

Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.”

“What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”

I’m searching for a word that means the opposite of leadership now. Flip-flopping doesn’t quite do it. Pathetic politicking? Slithering?

Whatever you call it, ignoring climate change, as Romney would likely do if he were elected, would no doubt lead to only more of the catastrophic weather events like the one we just experienced. It would mean devastation for the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit. And, at least while he’d be at the helm, it would mean also getting less federal help during those disasters.

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Mister Rogers Wouldn’t Approve of Obama’s Lena Dunham Ad (OPINION)

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Nancy French

Call it the Mister Rogers Effect: Moms want their kids to grow up in a neighborhood where the adults are virtuous. Whether it’s the baker, the postman, the mayor, or even the President, we want our children to have role models who are kind, generous, truthful. The kind of people your children could safely emulate.

During the most recent debate, some of us sat down with our children to see President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy. They disagreed on many things, particularly on Romney’s auto bailout position. For a few uncomfortable minutes, one accused the other of lying, until Romney suggested people at home should simply look it up. They did. For the days following the debate, Romney’s 2008 editorial about how he’d handle the Detroit automakers was the most-read story on the NYT’s website. So, who was telling the truth? Romney was deemed more accurate, but his success in this particular exchange is hardly earth shattering. What is significant is that voters, rather Americans, are realizing the President is not who we hoped he was.

“Here’s what upset me last night, this playing fast and loose with facts,” David Letterman said on his show. “Now, I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you want your president to be telling the truth… And so when we found out today or soon thereafter that, in fact, President Obama was not telling the truth about what was excerpted from that op-ed piece, I felt discouraged.”

“Discouraged” is a far cry from the sunny optimism that at one time characterized Americans. Even those who disagreed with the president’s politics were a little misty eyed at seeing the first black man to sit in the Oval Office. When my husband and I later adopted a toddler from Africa, part of me was delighted by the fact that she was immigrating to a country with an African-American leader. But since those moments of hope, something strange happened.  Obama—and consequently, our neighborhood—somehow managed to get smaller, more crass, more cynical.

The most recent example is when his campaign released an ad featuring hipster Lena Dunham comparing voting to Obama to surrendering one’s virginity:

“Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy… someone who really cares about and understands women…  It’s super uncool to be out and about and someone says ‘did you vote?’ and [you reply] ‘no, I didn’t feel—I wasn’t ready.’ ” The Weekly Standard wrote, “The President of the United States running a campaign ad implying that young women who don’t let themselves get pressured into sex are ‘super uncool’ is more than enough to make any normal person’s head explode.” Of course, Twitter did erupt. “Is it too much to ask that the President’s campaign ads be workplace safe?” someone tweeted. Parody ads popped up. But the damage was done. The President had released an ad mocking sexual purity, just to win votes among the college age demographic.

We wanted him to be great. To inspire. To soar. Instead he became smaller, almost bent on taking us down with him.

Recently, a friend’s first grader was assigned a biography of the president for Great Americans Day. “How bad would it be for me to ask my child to switch books?” the mom asked me. There was a time in the very recent past when I would’ve responded with a gentle reprimand. “Come on,” I would’ve said. “He’s our President, he’s a good man, he’s accomplished a great deal.”

Rather, that’s how I would’ve answered it. She happened to ask me six weeks after extremists murdered four American diplomats in Libya, and the President had still not told us what really happened. In the second debate, when Obama defended his lack of military response to the attack, his focus was all on semantics. He parsed his words, he covered his legacy. It was tragic and disappointing, because we wanted justice. We wanted to understand. We wanted honesty. We didn’t want a President to assign blame, before heading off to Las Vegas for a fundraiser.

In fact, it was Fred Rogers who said, “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”

Moms know this: a complex world requires nuanced responses to terrible events, but we want our leaders to be honest, courageous, and responsible. We are raising children to become adults, to build families, to create businesses, to serve this country in uniform. Sadly, none of us really live in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, with its astroturf lawns and closets full of perfectly pressed sweaters. Life is complicated and dangerous and sometimes scary. We want leaders who rise above it and illustrate how to navigate the complexities of this world with as much virtue and grace as possible.

The problem with this campaign season is not that moms are realizing Obama is not the President we wanted him to be. Much more tragically, he’s not the man we wanted him to be.

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