Summer's here!...which brings two important events together for parent advocates: congressional recess and summer vacation. Congressional recess is an ideal time to get some quality face-to-face time with your U.S. senator or representative in your local district. District meetings are great because you can talk without them being distracted by all the beltway shenanigans clamoring for attention in D.C. The typical duration of a D.C. visit tends to be about 15-25 minutes. Face-to-face meetings I've attended with members of Congress (MOC) in a home district have lasted close to an hour. That's a lot of personal attention! So, summer is an ideal time to get some face time. But now that school is out, what should you do with your kids while you lobby? My answer: take 'em along.
"That's great," you say, "but my 3 year old can't sit still for 5 seconds and I can't think straight enough to write a grocery list when they are in the room with me, much less put together a coherent argument about foreign aid." I hear you. I've been there. Like all things, you use your judgement about whether your kids are prime-time ready to go to a movie or a restaurant. This is no different. I know this will never work for some kids. Yet if your young charges are at-the-breast, sedate enough to color, or mature enough to write book reports at school, then taking them to lobby can be a very powerful experience for you, them, and your MOC. Here's why:
#1 You may get unexpected face-to-face time and photo ops
Guess what? In general, to an MOC your kids are cuter and more interesting than you are. There's a reason for the tradition of politicians kissing babies. They like to be around the reflected glory of cuteness. Look at this rare double IL senator sighting with my family at a D.C. constituent breakfast. Everybody got one photo with Senators Durbin and Kirk, but our family got two so there could be one with just the children. Senator Durbin made a beeline to talk to the girls before the townhall and both signed autographs for them afterwards, too. Would I have gotten anywhere near that attention for being a 40 year old activist in DC? Nope. But these girls whipped out about 30 kid-letters and pictures about global vaccines for the senators and had the full attention of two of the most powerful foreign aid appropriators in Washington.
#2 Nobody wants to be on record being rude to a child
If they don't happen to agree with you, it's highly unlikely that anything will get contentious in front of your children. They definitely don't want any tears in the office. What a horrible photo op that would be to go out on Twitter!
#3 You'll make a memorable impression
Good relationships are the key to great advocacy. If your MOC remembers you by name with a positive association, that's the best. If your kids are polite and respectful, they'll be grateful you're breaking up the routine of their day and be more likely to remember you next time. Or, you may have a very human parenting moment that will break the ice. Once, I brought markers for my 4 year old and was puzzled when the corners of my Congresswoman's mouth started twitching as she repeatedly looked just past me. I turned and saw my preschool-age lobby partner had colored her whole palm with red ink and was it was only a matter of time before she put it down to make a palm print...maybe on the paper, maybe not! We all burst out laughing, got a wet paper towel to clean her up, and went on with the meeting. Congresswoman Schakowksy is a grandmother herself and after that day our meetings were punctuated by her kvelling over their artwork and sometimes tickling them mid-conversation.
Congresswoman Jan Schakowksy with ONE volunteers and a small constituent caught "red-handed"
#4 It keeps the conversation at the emotional and moral level
Kids relate best to the moral reasons to help people in need. They have an innate sense of fairness and justice. Sometimes it's hard to get MOC's to stay on track because they'll sidetrack onto other topics or cite policy reasons beyond the reckoning of most voters and 5th graders. Kids can help remind them that can really be as simple as "We should help because we can." or "It's not fair that people are dying."
#5 You're helping kids grow up to be better citizens
I was terrified with nerves the first time I met my Congresswoman face-to-face. Kids, unlike many grownups, are fortunate to see MOC's as people instead of titles. My children know their Congresswoman as someone who laughs with them and even writes them letters sometimes. They know that they have every right to be in the capitol building and expect to be heard. Tearing down the intimidation barriers between MOC's and their constituents is the beginning of great citizen engagement.
#6 You save on babysitting money
Along with making great homemade bread, making the world a better place is definitely a legacy I wish to hand down to my girls. We all learn by doing and doing it together makes it more special.