Why I don’t want my daughter to learn about US presidents
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A recent article in the New York Times showcases children’s book publishers’ difficult task: how to update their children’s presidential biographies to include Donald J. Trump. How do they tell the story of his rise to power in a fair light?

As a parent and a developmental psychology professor, I have a related, but different concern: I am worried about exposing my daughter to presidential biographies at all.

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Now don’t get me wrong, my family loves civics. My husband is a law professor and a history buff. When my daughter was a baby, we lived in Chicago, and read her baby board books about Abraham Lincoln.

 

Many presidential biographies teach inspiring stories about our nation’s past. I want my daughter to learn these lessons and to applaud and question this nation’s variegated history.

Yet, now my daughter is in preschool and making sense of the social world around her. No amount of storied presidential pasts can eclipse the fact that by reading presidential biographies to her, I would be teaching my daughter that presidents are all men.

I can imagine the hypothetical study I would design in my experimental psychology lab to test the childhood impact of learning that our nation’s 45 presidents have all been men:

Welcome to my game! Today we’re going learn about a nation of red people and blue people. They are about half and half in number, and live peacefully together. Every few years they hold an election to pick the most powerful person who will lead their democracy, and who also will impact much of the rest of the world. I’ll walk you through it! The first election happened — it was a red person. I’ll show you the second. Red again! (Repeat 45 times or 58 times if you’re really counting). Oh, and guess what — you’re a blue person.

This study verges on the unethical. Yet, it is exactly what our presidential biography books teach children.

So, what to do, as a parent and as an educator? One option may be to highlight all the other important positions that the blue people hold. Representatives, judges, scientists, and foreign leaders. This approach certainly has some merit. History books highlighting the contributions of powerful women are a start, and I’ll be among the first in line to share them with my daughter.

But, come on. Forty-five times in a row the red people were chosen for the most important position? My daughter thinks unicorns are real, and yet I’m pretty sure she would see right through the argument that these other bluer positions are just as powerful.

So, what about a meta-history lesson? Children are very good at spotting and objecting to unfairness. What if children learned that the red people won 45 times in a row, and while many of the reds were great people, clearly this must suggest that some aspects of the system are rigged in favor of red over blue?

This also seems like a reasonable and valuable civics lesson. The problem, here, though, is as follows: Why aren’t the grown-up blue people completely freaking out? Why isn’t everyone completely freaking out? Why isn’t this systemic injustice the biggest news story in the country?

I wish I had better answers to this problem. I phoned some expert friends to seek their guidance.

Marjorie Rhodes, a professor of psychology, notes that this history lesson could inadvertently lead children to think that there is something inherently better about reds as compared to blues. She says that it would be important for parents to discuss historical problems in the system, to help children see that blues are not intrinsically less qualified to lead.

Psychology professor Kristin Shutts also says that parents can teach that this system is changeable, and children can play a part. This may give kids a sense of agency and excitement about their future. Children might also learn about other areas of the world, such as India, where the percentage of female representation has increased dramatically in a short amount of time.

My sister-in-law, a teacher and mom of boys, points out that these issues are just as important for thinking about educating boys as well as girls. Our system will become more egalitarian only when both boys and girls work together to make it so.

My best hope, it seems, is that the blues and reds work together to fix this problem, before my daughter is old enough to realize she is missing out on some very important historical knowledge. 

Katherine D. Kinzler is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Cornell University.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.