ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/8 April) – This year is our 4-year old son's first awareness about election. Initially, he saw volunteers posting campaign posters, he got curious and asked his mom, "Mama, who are these utud uw (Sinug word, literally, chopped heads) posted outside? My wife told me, he left after a brief explanation, although she is not sure whether he understood her explanation or not. The following day, when he saw another batch of volunteers posting anew, he ran towards the house and shouted, "Mama, they are posting chopped heads outside again!" My wife explained to her again. Finally, when he saw some posters fell to the ground, he quipped, "These chopped heads are creating a mess, granny is tired keeping the front yard tidy".
The value of this personal anecdote is for us parents to understand our role in educating our children. We are supposedly our children’s first teachers. Even when they are in school, we are remiss in our obligation if we leave our children’s education to their teachers alone. The latter teach our children in general terms, it is for us parents to contextualize their school learning according to our family’s cultural, linguistic and religious affiliation.
Having said that, my son’s anecdote got me thinking, when is the best time and what is the best way to teach our children about election, their right of suffrage and the larger democratic principle. This is akin to the timing of educating our children about sex. I guess, based from my personal and professional experience, the best time is when our children start to wonder and show interest. The worse thing we can do is to shun them and dismiss their query as petty, and like the subject of sex education, consider it taboo to be even talking about it.
In my professional experience as a nurse and as a feminine hygiene trainer, when we do not provide safe space for our children at home in responding to their inquisitive minds, we are shooing them away and they will end up asking the same from other people. Worse, they may end up getting responses without account of responsibility, that is, devoid of ethical and moral consideration.
My wife and I agreed we will respond to when he inquires about it. In short, on question basis. We pray we can muster the words he will understand, in the context he is familiar with. “Son, we do not call them ‘chopped heads’, they are close-up photos, so that we will remember their face. They are asking us to consider them come election day. Before we vote for them, we need to know if they are good people, do they care for others like mama and papa care for you? Will they behave if they get elected like you behave in school? Will they work hard like you studying hard? Will they follow rules like you holding mama’s or papa’s hands when we walk on the street? Will they share like you sharing your toys with your friends?
There will be more elections they will witness before they are finally about to vote themselves. Our explanation will become more abstract and complex as they grow up. Thus, our roles in educating our children is a pillar of responsible citizenship. Exercising the right of suffrage is an element of citizenship as there are more to responsible citizenship than just the right to vote. When we fail to educate them at home, it is hard to expect them to behave differently because we parents are their role models that they brag about with their classmates and friends. Therefore, how we behave ourselves is as influential as what we try to instill in their minds and hearts. According to the US Dept of Education, in a brochure on citizenship, “research indicates that children take values seriously only when they see adults they respect act in accordance with those values.”
What we are seeing now as pragmatism in our midst – the oxymoron situation of complaining over wrongdoings in many of our elected public servants and voting for the same candidates in return for monies, gifts and promises – I reckon can be traced to the meaningful citizenship education or the lack of it among our children at home and in school. At home, how can parents teach their children about citizenship when they themselves are ignorant about it? Is ignorance a safe leeway for us parents? At school it is a subject matter to be graded, and when we fail to transform children into citizens as they attain legal age, the status quo remains. If we are able to help them transform, then we benefit what democracy can afford us —like liberty, human rights, and equality.
It is hard to imagine proactive citizens without considering the crucial role of parents or guardians at home as we already recognized the importance of parents and families in character formation. “All parents want their children to grow up to be good people and responsible citizens. Just as children must be taught to tie their shoes, read and write, and solve math problems, so too must they be guided to develop qualities of character that are valued by their families and the communities in which they live” (US Dept of Education).
In the United States, the Department of Education came up with a booklet “Helping your Child to become Responsible Citizen”. The motivation behind this booklet is to engage and help parents build their children’s character – from compassion to citizenship, with calibrated activities for elementary, middle and high school levels. In this manner, citizen-building is school. community and family responsibility. This echoes an African adage, it takes a village to educate a child. A similar document can be adopted in our context. The quarterly parent-teacher conference, PTA meeting and sessions with 4Ps parents are some of good media to educate parents on their role and how to educate their children about citizenship. Newly-weds should no only be counselled on marriage but also their responsibility in educating their children about citizenship. In the words of Berkowitz, “governance depended on the character or virtues of its citizens”. Imagine what kind of governance and public leaders we will have without the virtues of citizenship among the people? Conversely, imagine what kind of governance and public leaders we will have with the virtues of citizenship present and strong among the people?