11/08/2012 03:53 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Explaining Politics to the Young

Wednesday morning I sat down with one of my students to help him plan his schedule for next semester. We both admitted to being tired, to having stayed up too late the night before watching the election results come in. He noted the purple sweater I was wearing and I admitted to choosing it in the spirit of bipartisanship and reconciliation.

As a rule, I don't announce my politics in the classroom because that's not what my college pays me to do. However, if a student asks, I let them know where I stand on candidates and issues, so when he asked me whom I voted for, I told him. He voted for a different candidate and he sounded apologetic when he told me, as though I might judge him for holding views other than my own. He then explained that his father was a loyal party supporter and so that's how he decided to cast his vote.

I told him that there was no need to apologize or explain to me the reason for his vote. I also told him that it made perfectly good sense that his political positions were formed in large part by his parents. Mine were, too, at that age. As an 18-year-old, that was to be expected. I told that over the next four years he would discover his own position on the issues that matter to him, and that whether or not his politics changed, at least they would be his own politics at that point and not simply the inheritance of his upbringing.

While we were talking, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my son the day before as we were preparing to walk up to my polling place. He's eleven and in sixth grade and is relentlessly curious and he told me that he while he knows what the difference is between a republic and a democracy -- he does? When did he learn that? -- he wasn't sure what the difference was between a Republican and a Democrat.

How to respond? It was important to me to choose my words carefully because my son knows that we have friends and family members that cover a pretty wide swath of the political spectrum. So this is what I said:

I told him that, in general, Democrats feel that the government should play an important role in helping to shape the economy and that, in general, Republicans believe that the economy does better when the government doesn't play a very big role.

I told that, in general, Democrats tend to be liberal on social issues and that, in general, Republicans are more traditional about such things.

I told him that, in general, Democrats feel that the government should make regulations to help protect the environment and that, in general, Republicans didn't feel that that was a necessary thing for the government to do.

That was enough, I felt.

He thought things through for a minute, and then he asked, "So, right now it is better to be a Democrat because of the economy and the environment, right?"

I told him where I stood on the issues, but I made sure to tell him that the people who believe otherwise aren't necessarily wrong just because they think differently from me. I also told him that the people I disagree with are just as concerned about the issues as I am, that they believe that their positions are the best ones for the country right now, just like I do.

He nodded, accepting that explanation.

And then we went to vote.