This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Posted: 9:04 AM- Cara Dye admits her 10-year-old daughter Katelyn doesn't know all the details about Tuesday's presidential primary election.
But Katelyn can name with dead-on accuracy the states New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has won so far in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. That alone was reason enough for Dye to take her daughter to Chelsea Clinton's Salt Lake City appearance at the University of Utah last Monday, where the candidate's daughter spoke in support of her mother.
One mother-daughter team, after all, deserves another.
"My friend gave me an Obama pin. I put it on and waited for her to say something and she just started crying," Dye said. "It was funny, but I felt so bad because I only meant to tease her."
Dye listened to many of President Bill Clinton's books on tape at home, but it wasn't until she played Hillary's books on tape that Katelyn listened for real. A political awakening was born, and now the mother talks more to her daughter about political matters.
The back-and-forth between Dye and her daughter is a process more parents should embrace rather than fear, Utah educators say. Learning about politics and political processes, even at an early age, is not only vital to becoming an educated citizen, but an important part of developing critical-thinking skills that will help them discern propaganda from fact, refine expression of their opinions and cultivate civil dialogue with those they're bound to disagree with as adults.
Introducing young people to their emerging role as citizens through different political processes is an ideal first step, said Jenicee Jacobson, government teacher at Riverton High School.
"They need more than what they're initially given by the media environment," Jacobson said. "Don't be afraid to let them speak out loud. Let them articulate the other side of an issue, or explain the qualities of a candidate for themselves. They should be able to explore, and parents shouldn't feel too threatened, because they can enjoy watching their children go through that process."
Dye is happy to help her daughter along that path. "I'm frank with her, but I try to put issues in terms that she'll understand," Dye said.
Using radio news reports from the BBC as a springboard, Dye sometimes talks to her daughter about the Iraq war. The topic often went neglected, sometimes deliberately, when Katelyn was younger.
"Like most people, you try to shelter your children at that age," Dye said.
Like Dye, Utah schools impart a similar sense of care and concern at a time when political topics and discussion can reach fever pitch. Whether through individual district policy or the Utah Department of Education's policies regarding the recognition of constitutional freedoms and student expression in schools, teachers and administrators recognize that addressing political issues, and by extension oftentimes controversial issues, in the classroom requires a steady hand.
"I don't know how you could teach a history class and not discuss current events," said Pam Su'a, a social studies and history consultant for the Jordan School District who's also taught history in Utah schools for 15 years.
Restrictions on what students may discuss, and what teachers may say, are few. However, schools must be mindful of topics introduced relative to the age of students. Debating abortion would be out of place among elementary school children, Su'a said. While they're free to tell students who they're voting for come Feb. 5, Su'a said it's "not smart." The goal is never on indoctrination, but giving students the tools necessary to reach their own conclusions.
Charting these sometimes uneasy waters is worth it, Su'a said, when students show the telltale signs of independent thinking. She recalls a student in her history class at West Jordan Middle School who took a strong initial stance in favor of the Patriot Act but later, after discussion and study, spoke against it. He later admitted that, although he couldn't speak either for or against the law with much confidence, he was at least better informed than when he started.
"We love to see students move back and forth between positions," Su'a said.
Instances in which students or parents have become upset over political discussions in school are rare, Su'a said, perhaps because an emphasis on respectful dialogue is paramount. The earlier students learn decorum, the better.
"When you get into middle school we have more fund with political dialogue, but it's also more difficult to control manners," Su'a said.
At Butler Middle School, a public "First Amendment School" with its own student senate, students analyze political cartoons and focus on politics through issues long before candidates and other political figures enter the conversation. Such an approach helps keep any partisan tendencies among students at bay, said school Principal Marsha Morgan.
Even if voices rise a little too high, the risk is worth it. Teachers can demand that students start again, this time with a tone of respect.
"Politics and democracy is not easy. It's messy. You have to get in it, dig it up and work with it," Su'a said.