I could tell that the sounds of the very words "government. shut. down." brought wrinkles of wonder and concern into my civic-minded ten-year-old's face. "What do you mean?" she asked.
She knows the government to be a provider of services: the keeper of the roads, the employer of police officers, the enforcer of laws that make people safe and able to live freely. I could see why she would worry. Why would the government shut down? And what will happen?
I told her (quickly, because this was a school morning) that the local government would still be up and running today. You can just imagine, from a child's perspective, the hell that might erupt from the lack of a government: crime, traffic mayhem, garbage-strewn neighborhoods, and kids ejected from public schools into the streets. I explained that many national government offices would be closed, and that the workers in those offices would not be paid until the US congress could agree on a budget to operate the government.
Okay, I gave it my best shot, but this mess is tough to explain to someone as logical as a fifth grader.
The conversation made me imagine the conversations at the breakfast tables of families who voted for these obstructionist tea-party congresspeople. What are they telling their kids? That the evil government is at it again, trying to help people go to the doctor? Do they also tell their kids that if someone can't afford to personally pave the road, they need to walk instead instead of drive? Atul Gawande pointed out in the New Yorker that
"conservative groups are campaigning to persuade young people, in particular, that going without insurance is “better for you”—advice that no responsible parent would ever give to a child."As a parent, there's nothing I want more for my children than for them to be empathetic, caring individuals who will grow up with a sense of responsibility for themselves, and for their fellow members of society. I am well aware that a major element of the impasse in our nation is that each side feels so strongly about its position that it can't begin to understand the position of the other. I personally have to work hard right now to have empathy for those who seem to have none.