Tilly: Teaching children to fight

BY ZACH TILLY | JULY 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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When I was 11, I stood in my parent’s bedroom and watched some night-vision footage of the Army rolling through Iraq on TV. In my memory it was a Saturday, midmorning, and I wasn’t wearing pants. In reality, I was almost certainly wearing pants — as a child, I was careful to always wear pants.

I cheered for the infantry on the road to Baghdad, overcome by the spectacle of an ass-kicking. It was as though CNN had transported me to an alternate reality just off the coast of San Diego in which I was parachuting through a heady fog of gun smoke and Skynyrd guitars toward the deck of an aircraft carrier called the USS Iraqi Freedom.

In retrospect, I wish I had been more chaste.

It was around the same time that I participated in a series of political debates on the school bus with a classmate I didn’t like much. Her grandpa was a well-known newspaper columnist; my grandpa said he was a notorious liberal. I was inclined to believe my grandpa, who had, to the best of my knowledge, never lied to me.

I argued with the oratorical force of a young Patrick Henry for the moral rightness of the Iraq War. The president knows what he’s doing, I said. My opponent parried with an argument that has been lost to time, but was probably peppered with phrases like “blood for oil” and “fabricated rationale for war.”

I was wrong, I guess, she was less wrong. Or rather, the parents she was mimicking were less wrong than the parents I was mimicking.

It’s a well-worn idea that political socialization — the process by which political beliefs develop — begins at a young age and that parents play a central role in mediating the political messages that define their child’s worldview.

A 2005 survey from Gallup found that the political views of 71 percent of U.S. teens aged 13-17 closely matched the views of their parents. As a 13-year-old in 2005, I fell squarely within that 71 percent.

This issue, the inheritance of political beliefs, becomes troublesome when you consider how sticky these early formed ideologies really are. A 2010 study of political socialization in children published by the International Society of Political Psychology found that today “children develop consistent and persistent political orientations at a much younger age.” The study also notes that these beliefs tend not to change much as education levels rise.

We spend a lot of time as a society wringing our hands about the effects of a crass, violent popular culture on our children but very little time worrying about the corrosive effects that our shallow, adversarial politics have on them.

Consider that my mom and I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the way home from school every day when I was in fourth grade. Consider also that my middle-school debate partner and I knew virtually nothing about Iraq but still felt perfectly comfortable having an animated shouting match on the subject in front of all our bus pals.

Folks like us were raised to scream and fight first and ask questions later, a habit I haven’t yet shaken. We’re the product of an ugly age, and as we begin squeezing out babies of our own, we would do well to recognize that ugliness in ourselves and teach our kids better.

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