When Anna McCartney walked into Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott's office with her 3-year-old son, Ewan, she was nervous. There to deliver a letter explaining why McDermott should support a bill related to food allergies, she was surprised to be given an opportunity to meet with McDermott and explain the issue in person. He called her back the next day to say he would be a co-sponsor.
"I felt like, 'Wow, I guess it's not that hard to get something done!' It was pretty energizing," McCartney says.
At 10 months of age, Ewan McCartney's heart stopped, and he quit breathing due to an allergic reaction to eggs. Fortunately, paramedics revived him, but it was a life-changing experience for Anna McCartney.
Motivated by her son's health issues, McCartney is a mighty force in politics. To get the word out about the food-allergy legislation, she visited offices and called legislators, wrote hundreds of letters and printed more than 3,000 photo postcards for parents to send to politicians. In the end, McCartney influenced both senators and all but three members of Washington's Congressional delegation to co-sponsor the bill. As each politician signed on, an aide from that office called her. Although she never envisioned herself as a political advocate, she co-formed a grassroots national advocacy group, www.foodallergyaction.org.
"The political stuff has been a neat way for me to feel like a dynamo, even if I can't convince Ewan to take a nap," McCartney says with a laugh.
Mark MacGillivray became a block captain in his Magnolia neighborhood and took an interest in the proposed development behind his home after the birth of his daughter, Claire. "I was definitely more motivated after becoming a dad," MacGillivray says. He met with developers, wrote an informative letter and went door-to-door discussing the development and its impact on the volume and speed of cars in the neighborhood.
Brent Davis goes door-to-door with his 5-year-old son, Christopher, and 21-month-old daughter, Catherine, campaigning for Republican candidates, or "making friends," as he explains in kid lingo.
"I want to know everyone in my neighborhood so I can be there for them when they need help and so our community can be strong. Even if we don't see completely eye-to-eye politically, I care about their families and want to have great relationships with them," Davis explains.
As a precinct officer in the 41st District, Davis has volunteered in about every way possible. Politically involved in high school, Davis became disillusioned about politics and the media, but the years of political cynicism were eased after Christopher's birth.
"Having kids is about the least cynical thing you can do," agrees Cheryl-Reid Simons, mother to 18-month-old twins Eddie and Chas, and a volunteer on the Kerry/Edwards presidential campaign. "Once you have kids it is hard to maintain that sort of attitude because it is just so important that the future is shaped in a positive way." Reid-Simons' past also includes political activism, which temporarily ended when she became disenchanted about "whether or not you could ever make a difference."
"Honestly, I've got two little boys sitting here, and we've gone to war, and my attitude about war has dramatically changed," she says. "I can't imagine anything worth sending my boys over to risk life and limb."
Many elected officials also say their roles as parents have influenced their decision to enter politics. State gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi says his commitment to the future of his and other children prompted his run for office. The Sammamish Republican is concerned about the business climate and wants to ensure that Washington's future includes economic opportunities for all.
And when a state senator told Patty Murray, then a mother of two preschoolers, "You can't make a difference, you are just a mom in tennis shoes," it galvanized her into action and took her down a path she never expected: The Democrat from Shoreline is now one of Washington's two U.S. senators.
Parents of very young children aren't the only ones learning lessons about the value of democracy and political involvement. Some Seattle-area preschools include civics and government education as part of their classroom lessons.
Five-year-old Makennan Hurd, for example, studied democracy and the workings of the U.S. government in an innovative pre-kindergarten program taught by JoAnn Farnworth and Sandy Masson at Bellevue's Lake Heights YMCA. "I like our flag because it has stripes and stars. My flag is supposed to have 50 stars on it for all the states, but mine only has 26," Makennan says of the flag he made last spring.
While many daycares and preschools shy away from teaching about the government or saying the Pledge of Allegiance out of respect for the wide array of cultures and beliefs represented in most classrooms today, Farnworth and Masson embrace it. Parents are polled regarding their family heritage and, throughout the year, students study a map and "travel" to the different cultures represented in the classroom via guest speakers, food and activities. In May, the travel concludes with a study on the U.S.
"We teach the Pledge of Allegiance, talk about the president and his job, and the Secret Service agents who protect him," Farnsworth explains. The kids put together puzzles of the U.S., and make a red, white and blue friendship chain as part of the curriculum.
Lessons in the democratic process begin in September with the classroom fish. "We say we have these pet fish and they need names. We list all these names, then we have them vote and teach them they only get to vote once," Farnworth explains.
Pike Market Childcare and preschool in Seattle makes an important statement to parents about political issues by closing annually for Worthy Wage Day in April, a day for child-care workers and their supporters to rally and march for fair wages and respect.
"It is for the common good and addresses the issues of children, but it is a teacher issue that branches out and trickles down to the kids," says Lisa Valenzuela, program manager at Pike Market Childcare. "If there is a turnover of 20 teachers, it can't be good for anyone."
While Pike Market Childcare does not provide direct instruction regarding politics or government, politics come into play in the classrooms regularly through issues of fairness. "Kids are super. They know what fairness is, and that is what politics is really about," Valenzuela says.
Civics Web sites aimed at preschoolers, parents
Younger preschoolers often learn by starting with simple flag recognition, then move on to spotting the Statue of Liberty or other American icons. Coloring pages are available at www.coloring-page.net Click on coloring pages, then click on July 4th.
The Web site www.ushistory.org/betsy/ offers fun activities and background about the U.S. flag and Betsy Ross.
More government-related activities for all ages are available at www.kids.gov. Click on music, then the National Institutes of Environmental Health for patriotic songs, and from the home page, click on activities and find an array of government agencies with activities, including NASA for budding astronauts and scientists and Coast Guard coloring books you can download free.
To learn how candidates voted regarding children's issues, see www.childrenscampaignfund.org. This is a bipartisan political action committee "dedicated to electing legislators who will champion the health, safety and welfare of Washington's children."
Jolene Gensheimer is a Bellevue-based freelance writer, mother of two and former teacher.