Once upon a time there was a mayor

Rob Ford snowboarding

Rob Ford snowboarding

In all the chatter around the Rob Ford story, there’s been a lot of parental soul-searching about how to explain the situation to kids. Radio shows have hosted call-ins, parenting blogs have pontificated, child psychologists have been consulted. Parents seem traumatised by their kids’ questions: Is he a bad guy? What’s crack cocaine?

My kids, aged 3 and 5, relish our mayor. They perk up when they hear his name on the radio and they like to cut his picture out of the newspaper. Consisting of basic geometrics, Rob Ford makes an excellent subject for portraiture.

Children are familiar with bad guys. Their book shelves are full of them – unless political correctness has slashed and burned its way through. My German-born children’s bilingual library brims with greedy kings, extortionists and boy-eating giants. Rob Ford can be filed somewhere between Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk and the tale of William Tell.

Crack cocaine is a drug, as are cigarettes, alcohol and the pills in the bathroom cabinet. What child doesn’t have an Uncle Randy who says outrageous things and slaps mum’s bum at Christmas? What child hasn’t seen a homeless person teetering down the sidewalk clutching a paper bag? What child hasn’t had a needle at the doctor’s that made everything go numb? That’s what drugs can do to you. At a certain point, drugs can become dangerous which is why there are laws on which ones and how much you’re allowed to take.

Rob Ford is the mayor of Toronto. He’s not supposed to take illegal drugs, teeter down the street, slap bums and lie. Torontonians are angry with him. They’re also disappointed with his behaviour (one of the first phrases my 3 year old brought back from his Montessori pre-school.)

Children know that bad behaviour has consequences. They experience this daily, at least they should, because adults understand the importance of limits, at least they should. On my kids’ book shelf, there’s a boy who goes to bed without dinner because he was rude to his mother. There’s a princess who’s condemned to take a slimy frog into her bed for having broken a promise. There’s a step-sister who gets doused in tar for being lazy and selfish.

Children also know redemption. They love the warmth that washes over them when their apology is accepted and the battery-operated backhoe is returned to their care. They aren’t banished to their rooms for ever, they might even get dessert if they scrape the mashed potatoes off the floor. Rob Ford has choices – another very popular term in contemporary early-childhood pedagogy.

I’m the last person who could be deemed a Ford supporter. I wouldn’t even begin to defend his actions. But why assume that our kids are incapable of negotiating this moral territory? They know adults are flawed; they’ve been studying us from the get go. And I tell you, there’s no better way to liven up a family dinner by having your Ford-bashing 3 year old son and your die-hard Ford-fan stepmother sit down at the same table.

(This was intended for November 2013 publication in a Canadian newspaper but imperfect communication with editorial staff rendered it “obsolete”. It may be a bit stale but, like scotch squares, I think good for at least 6 months.)

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