Yesterday my six-year-old and I went on a trip to Parliament, with his five-year-old friend and her dad. We had a picnic on the big lawn, and they climbed the magnificent trees, and had running races, but only after going on an hour-long tour of the buildings.
Inside, on the tour, there was plenty for them to enjoy. They spotted intriguing artworks, gifts from all over the world, like the carved wooden elephant from the Thai ambassador in the foyer, the stone tuatara, called Ngararanui, perched in a garden between the Library and the main Parliament building, and the models of Abel Tasman’s ships, given by the Dutch community in New Zealand, under the steps in the Galleria. ‘It’s like a museum!’ said my boy. He’s a big fan of museums.
They saw busts of Kate Sheppard, one of the leading campaigners for women’s suffrage, whom they recognised, and Sir Apirana Ngata, the long-serving MP who we learned was named the ‘grandpappy’ of Parliament. They stood a few metres from the place where war was declared in 1915.
The last part of our visit, after lunch and tree-climbing, was Question Time, the boisterous debate session where the Opposition Members of Parliament ask probing questions of the Government Ministers, holding power to account. For forty minutes, these two small citizens were utterly absorbed, watching every moment. ‘Who’s that again? The one who looks after the money?’ my son asked as the Minister of Finance rose to answer a second question. They were paying attention.
We moved to a second part of the viewing gallery after a while so we could get a better view of the Prime Minister – definitely a highlight, for all of us. I pointed out the Deputy Prime Minister, too, and the Deputy Leader of the Labour party, as my son had asked the week before who was in charge when the PM was visiting Sāmoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands.
My son is friends with children who have arrived in New Zealand as refugees, so he was very interested to see Golriz Ghahraman, our country’s first former-refugee MP. He didn’t realise the significance of the range of ethnic backgrounds our MPs come from – that’s normal to him, right? – but he did see everything. He saw Māori men and women standing, being recognised by the Speaker, and contributing to the debate. He saw a Tongan Kiwi Minister congratulate our Paralympians, a couple of pregnant Members (including, of course, the Prime Minister herself), a baby being nursed in the gallery and an MP wearing a turban. It looked a bit like real life.
When I mentioned on Twitter that we were going to Parliament, someone responded:
Unless you’re forced to take your child along for babysitting purposes, generally I think children should be left out of the political debate until they’ve learnt enough to make up their own minds on how they feel about certain issues instead of force fed their parents opinions.
Why not wait just a little bit longer when the basic building blocks of education are in place before discussing political issues?
I can’t agree with that. If we want our children to grow up to be active citizens, who take part in shaping the society they live in, then, just like with literacy and numeracy, we can start passing on those skills before they can talk.
We do this stuff all the time as parents and educators. We count the steps one by one as toddlers climb upstairs, years before they will be doing trigonometry or calculus with those numbers. We sing the alphabet song to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, well before we’re expecting them to write essays or poems themselves. We all start somewhere.
Similarly, we can introduce the basics of civic education and politics when children are very small. I’m sure you’ve noticed yourself, for instance, that children have a keen sense of what’s fair and right. Some of our children will have first-hand experience of international unfairness, the refugee crisis, and discrimination. Many will be affected by environmental issues like pollution, climate change, and dwindling biodiversity. It’s a simple thing to connect these things they care about with the role of councils and governments to make a difference.
Remember, politics is much broader than just what political parties get up to. Political education includes ideas of fairness, equality and having your say. When we teach our children these things, we aren’t telling them who to vote for, we’re giving them important skills of good citizenship.
In the next article, we’ll look at some practical things you can do with your children to explore concepts of democracy and civic participation. We’d love to hear your ideas in the meantime! Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.
Luckily for us, and for all the children of New Zealand, another response to my tweet was much more encouraging and inclusive. The Speaker of the House himself, Trevor Mallard, invited us to come and see him get ready for the session, and join his procession to the debating chamber. The children were invited to try on his ceremonial wigs, and we got a tour of the Speaker’s apartment (which I didn’t even know existed before that day).
Once we were installed in the gallery, watching democracy in action, keen-eyed observers might even have spotted the Speaker waving to them from his throne, while the debate was in progress.