My 14-year-old son has been running for president of his freshman class, and by the time you read this, we’ll know the results.
But regardless of how things turn out, we’ve already gotten a useful reminder of how teenagers campaign for office these days — and what they might be able to teach us grown-ups about how campaigning should be done.
Last month, before the campaign began on my son’s campus, parents attended a mandatory meeting to learn the rules.
“Your privilege to run in the election will be revoked if you discriminate negatively toward any group or person,” the handout read.
Candidates could also get booted from the race if “you deface or remove another candidate’s campaign materials,” or “your speech is inappropriate in any way, including words, gestures or props.”
Candidates for class offices were also responsible for “picking up any campaign materials that become litter.”
Along with a ban against campaign trash, the school imposed a ban on trash talk. “Campaign materials are to be positive, respectful and in good taste,” the flier noted. “Negative campaigning is prohibited.”
The list of rules included a general appeal to civility and decorum. Here’s how the school administrators put it:
“When in doubt, DON’T.”
The reason for the rules seemed obvious. After the election, these kids will have to work and play with each other until graduation. Why insult a classmate, why denigrate his campaign, why play some cheap joke at his expense — when you will be expected to get along with your former rival for years into the future?
Maybe it’s a question that this year’s adult candidates for public office should be asking as they continue to battle each other for the ultimate prize — a coveted seat in elective office.
And maybe, if we’re wondering why public service doesn’t seem to be working as well as it might, we should look at the quality of the campaigns that are supposed to prepare the eventual victors for leadership.
If the basic lessons of courtesy and generosity are important enough to teach high schoolers hitting the campaign trail, shouldn’t they be at least as important for the men and women vying to govern the free world?
After the campaign meeting at my son’s school, we drove home and ate dinner in front of the evening news, where the day’s political reporting showed a parade of candidates routinely violating the rules that my teenage presidential candidate was expected to follow.
Given the ugliness of it all, I found myself wishing that grown-up campaigns followed the most important campaign rule at my son’s high school.
From start to finish, the races on campus lasted only four days.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.