< Civics Lesson


Friday, April 21, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Whether by example or by instruction, parents are the most powerful influencers of their children's values and beliefs. But sometimes, training is difficult because those adorable little sponges aren't necessarily well equipped for understanding abstract concepts such as say, infinity or differential calculus – or politics. Many parents forego such abstractions and concentrate on toilet training, scissors-carrying and the Golden Rule. Others, eager to get the toddlers politically conscious, can turn to a new genre – partisan children's literature. Toss away “Green Eggs and Ham.” Bedtime with little Kyle or Courtney can be Jeremy Zilber's “Why Mommy is a Democrat” or Katherine DeBrecht's “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” But are books like these early civics lessons or early indoctrination? Both authors join me now. Katherine, Jeremy, welcome to On the Media.



BOB GARFIELD: Katherine, let's begin with you. Describe for me, please, “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” and what you were after in writing it.

KATHERINE DeBRECHT: Sure. “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” is a story about two boys, Tommy and Lou, who ask their parents for a swing set and their parents say, you know, “why don't you earn the money. After all, you'd appreciate it more and become a better person.” So they decide to open up a lemonade stand. They are all excited. They go to bed that night and dream of their lemonade stand, and their dream gets stuck in Liberal Land. And in Liberal Land, liberals keep appearing from behind their lemon tree demanding they give half of their money with taxes, make them give broccoli with each glass sold and make them take down a picture of Jesus at the top of their stand. And the “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” book was really meant for conservative parents to sit down with their kids and teach their children their traditional conservative family values in a really fun and entertaining way.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Jeremy. How about your book, which is titled “Why Mommy is a Democrat?”

JEREMY ZILBER: Well, my book really looks like sort of an ordinary children's picture book. It has a sort of happy, fluffy family of squirrels living in a park. And in each scene there is some text, such as "Democrats make sure everyone plays by the rules, just like Mommy does." And the happy squirrel family are sort of living out this value of the Democratic Party. In the background there is sort of a darker reality, if you will, and for the adult reader, they will pick up on the fact that these humans are living in this Republican reality, where things are not quite so rosy as in the Democratic land of the squirrels.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now I'm looking at some sample pages from your book, and one of the panels shows, you know, the mommy squirrel and her two kid squirrels playing happily. And then in the background we see this image of a homeless man on a bench and some fat cat with a big tax rebate check under his arm walking with his well-coiffed Republican wife right past the homeless man. He's not sharing just like Mommy does. You think kids aren't going to notice that image?

JEREMY ZILBER: I think kids will see the image, but to a child, four, five, six years old, I don't think they're going to recognize that this is a Republican couple walking by a homeless man. I think they're going to see three people in a park and nothing more.

BOB GARFIELD: How about this? You're reading the book to your child, Daddy, who is that man with the cigar? What do you tell him?

JEREMY ZILBER: Well, I would probably try to explain that those are people who have a lot of money and they seem not to be helping the person who doesn't have a lot of money. But I was very careful in this book to make sure that none of the illustrations or the text explicitly talk about Republicans or George Bush or anything related to the Republican Party so that parents are really free to interpret – [OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD: Daddy, that man isn't sharing. Is he a Democrat?

JEREMY ZILBER: That, again, I would – [OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD: Daddy, if he's not a Democrat –


BOB GARFIELD: - what is he? What's a not-Democrat called?

JEREMY ZILBER: If parents want to discuss that as being a Republican and talk about the values of the Republican Party and make the comparison or the contrast with the Democratic Party, that's the parents' prerogative. Parents are going to do that, with or without this book.

BOB GARFIELD: Katherine, you're a Republican. How do you feel about your fellow travelers being portrayed as fat cats who ignore desperate homeless people in city parks?

KATHERINE DeBRECHT: [LAUGHS] Well, the Republicans have been portrayed as that for years. I don't mention Republican or Democrat. I really talk about traditional conservative family values that are undermined by the liberal ideology in this country.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, do you think children are in a position to understand what it means to have good wholesome family values undermined by the liberal majority? Do you think they can get their arms around that concept?

KATHERINE DeBRECHT: I think in some ways they can. I, as a parent of three kids, have constantly seen, whether it's on the television or the books that are in the schools, and one that my child brought home, that businesses are all greedy and out there to take everybody's money and make everybody poor and work long hours. So the “Liberals Under My Bed” book really is more of a balance to say, look, overtaxation, overregulation and being offended by anything Christian does undermine these children's pursuit of the American dream.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me tell you both a story. It involves my daughter, Alison, who once upon a time was in third grade. And in third grade, she was asked to write a list of her pet peeves, people she actually doesn't like. And the first one was murderers. After that was lumberjacks. [LAUGHTER] And I said, “Lumberjacks? Murderers, lumberjacks? Ally, why lumberjacks?” And she said, “Well, they cut down trees.”


BOB GARFIELD: Now, that kind of made me mad because it told me that in school she was learning ecology and the value of protecting the environment, but it was a tough lesson to teach little kids because little kids, where there is good, they're seeking evil. Can your books exist without creating an evil other?

JEREMY ZILBER: You know, kids are I think, a little smarter than you're giving them credit for. And I'm not sure how old your daughter is, but I imagine, if she hasn't yet, at some point she's going to learn that lumberjacks aren't evil.

BOB GARFIELD: When she was 14, she killed a lumberjack just to watch him die. [LAUGHTER]

JEREMY ZILBER: Okay. Well, I stand corrected. And [LAUGHS] -

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, I made that up. But - [LAUGHTER] - do we want to traumatize children by showing them that there are some bad people out there – half of America, in fact, who does not have their best interests at heart?

KATHERINE DeBRECHT: My children basically helped me write my book in a lot of ways. And my son's best friend's parents are liberals. He's not running around saying, “Oh, you're a liberal.” You know, they appreciate the point of debate and learning other views, but they also know why we believe this ideology is really best for us.

BOB GARFIELD: Go back in time with me for a moment, Katherine, to before you got the idea for this book.


BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Please complete this sentence.


BOB GARFIELD: Help! Mommy, there are blank under my bed.

KATHERINE DeBRECHT: Okay. I can see where you're going with this. Let me tell you the story of how I got the title for “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” I was watching the RNC Convention back in 2000. My son came upstairs, sat on my bed and I was explaining to him that we were electing a new President and that I wanted Bush to win and not the liberal Gore. And he asked why, and I said, “Well, because the harder Daddy works and the more money he makes, the more liberals want to take that money out of his pocket.” So he's sitting on my bed, his eyes get real big and wide and he looks under the bed and says, “Well, where are these liberals, Mom?” That was the perfect title for my book. [LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD: Katherine DeBrecht is a freelance newspaper reporter and author of “Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” Jeremy Zilber teaches political science at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. His book is called “Why Mommy is a Democrat.” It seems like Katherine DeBrecht, in her last answer, made precisely the point I was arguing. Her son was looking for liberals under the bed, which is where kids typically expect monsters to be. Renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed that children under the age of 11 were incapable of the kind of abstract thinking that, say, politics requires. Modern theorists have since revised that number down, but many still subscribe to Piaget's broader stages of child development. Doctor Andrew Getzfeld teaches psychology at New Jersey City University and at NYU. He says that it's a stretch to expect very young readers to approach these books critically.

DR. ANDREW GETZFELD: If you're looking at the conservative book, which, according to Amazon, is targeted at a reading level for kids from four to eight, children that are four, depending on which theorist you believe in, in general really don't have the capacity to make decisions other than dichotomous decisions. In other words, they see everything as black and white. They're not going to be able to distinguish between fine shades of meaning. For example, if you tell them conservatives do this, this and this, what they will say is that, “Okay, conservatives are either good or they're bad, and the same thing with Democrats.” In other words, there's no in between for them because they can't really think in abstractions.

BOB GARFIELD: What do books like these teach children?

DR. ANDREW GETZFELD: That's a good question. That's something I was thinking about last night and then coming down here on the subway. I think what they teach kids is to look at things only through one perspective. To me, both books are examples of propaganda, which is fine. That's really what politics is all about, for the most part. But it doesn't allow kids to think independently, to form their own decisions, and it teaches them to compartmentalize either people or political groups or what have you, to look at, for example, all Democrats, all liberals as being bad, taking things away from us, or as all Republicans as being bad, also taking things away from us.

BOB GARFIELD: Not to put too fine a point on it - is it good parenting to expose your kids to, you know, very simplistic stereotypes and call it instilling values?

DR. ANDREW GETZFELD: What we really don't want, or at least what parents should not want, from my perspective, is to create really mini-versions of themselves, although a lot of parents do that. My belief is that within reason, kids should be allowed to make their own choices, and that's what Piaget said, is that a child learns best by being an active explorer in his or her environment. Now to me, the way I interpret that is that children should try everything on their own, within reason, even if they get hurt - not seriously, obviously – but even if they get hurt, they should be able to learn from that. Instead, if we end up sheltering kids - and that's really a form of sheltering, by saying, okay this group is like this, everybody else is bad – in effect, you're forcing kids really to make a decision before they're able to understand really what the differences are.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Andy, thank you very much.

DR. ANDREW GETZFELD: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Andrew Getzfeld teaches in the psychology department at New Jersey City University and New York University and is a member of the American Psychological Association. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]