As the Tucson massacre fades from the top of the news and official Washington returns to debating volatile issues like health care, it's time to ask our national leaders this demanding question: Can you behave like 9-year-olds expect you to?
That was the challenge President Obama presented to America's elected leaders in his eulogy at Tucson, as he recalled the third-grade shooting victim, Christina Green: "I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."
But while everyone promises to play nice, left unanswered is this: What are these expectations of children that our leaders are supposed to live up to? If we don't answer that, the more civil tone in Washington will disappear as soon as one senator cuts in front of another on the lunch line.
As the father of three (ages 8, 14 and 24), a long-time sports coach, and the communications director a nonprofit that helps communities improve their youth services, I know a bit about trying to meet those expectations. It's tough, and I'm not sure that many of our elected leaders and those who ache to be elected can do it.
In the spirit of the moment, however, let's take them at their word. Let's believe they will try their best. Let's help them become successful adults.
Let's tell them that this is the least that our children expect from them:
Respect the opinions of others: The teachers say that one thing that makes America great is the recognition that there are many different, legitimate opinions about any issue, and that everyone has a right to those opinions. So let's carry out all debates on the presumption that everyone involved is saying what they think is best for the country, and that they are not on the side of terrorists or Nazis.
No bullying: Violence doesn't solve problems, so there is no need for violent imagery or language in political material or policy debates. Yes, history books tell us that early American politicians sometimes alluded to guns and even physical assaults against their foes. But we're not in the 1700s anymore; we're in a world of more school and workplace shootings that we can remember, of suicide bombers and suspicious powder in the mail. In that world, our leaders need to tone down the heated atmosphere, not feed it.
Be honest: That's means more than "don't outright lie." It means don't twist facts or your opponents' statements in a way that you know in your gut is baloney. Here's a test for any claim that you make: If you tell it to your parents, but they also know the actual truth, will you get in trouble?
Be humble: It's hard to admit, but we all make mistakes. Even when you are sure of yourself, remember that tricky spelling-bee word, "fallible." And that in the long run, the fate of the nation does not actually depend on you getting your way on today's vote.
Listen: Kids often hear their parents say, "You don't listen!", but the adults who lead our country seem to have trouble paying attention to people they disagree with. How can you say an idea is wrong if you don't fully understand it? By listening better, you might find common ground, or you might find more ammunition - er, fodder - to refute opposing arguments.
Follow the Golden Rule: Don't gripe about the other side doing something unfair to you -- "Hey, he's filibustering! She won't vote on my judicial nominations!" -- if you did the same thing to them when you had the chance. What goes around comes around.