Novelist Brad Meltzer set out to learn the answer—and discovered some pint-size hope.
Did you ever dream of being president? I sure did. The commander in chief gets a world-class jet, a bulletproof car, and a big white house—not to mention his own movie theater and private concerts with Beyoncé and Paul McCartney.
To me, one of the greatest things about being an American is that anyone can be president. Right now, somewhere in our 50 states, there’s a little kid who will grow up to be the leader of the free world.
There’s just one problem: Kids today don’t want the job. In a poll of participants between the ages of 10 and 16 conducted by my publisher, Penguin Young Readers, only 27 percent reported presidential aspirations. Among 15- and 16-year-olds, the figure dropped to 13 percent!
When asked in an open-ended question what they do want to be, only one kid said president. Our nation’s highest public office tied with “alien.” Pro athlete was the most popular answer, followed by teacher and veterinarian (another tie), then scientist, then doctor.
Kids don’t even look up to the president. When we asked about their heroes, just 2 percent voted for him.
We can’t fault our current head of state. When George W. Bush was in the White House, a Scholastic poll revealed that just 19 percent of kids wanted to be president.
To find out why kids think so little of a position that was once so revered, I did a second survey, in my daughter’s elementary school. I had the opportunity to ask her third grade class a series of open-ended questions. Over and over, the kids expressed the opinion that being president was “too much work” and “too hard.” Are kids today just lazier?
Not likely. In the Penguin poll, when participants were asked to rank top qualities for success, their No. 1 answer was hard work. So why the disdain for the White House?
We’ve taught it to them. They see our frustration with Washington every day—at the dinner table, online, on TV. Partisanship and a snarky news media are partly to blame, says George Stephanopoulos, chief political correspondent at ABC News and former communications director and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton. “What trickles down to kids is that the job is thankless. If you stick your head out, you get beaten back.”
Our impossibly high standards for the president are part of the problem as well, says Stephanopoulos: “We elect our presidents with all this hope and all this expectation. The fact is, the job just isn’t that powerful. The president is one actor among many. By design.”
Our dissatisfaction gives our kids the impression that the president is ineffectual. It’s no wonder they have no desire to sit in his chair.
But a few little dreamers in my daughter’s class showed me an important exception to the rule. As I flipped through their essays, I stopped on one child who wrote that she’d rather be president than anything else “because I don’t want to do what other people do.”
The moment I saw her answer, my eyes welled up; I recognized my daughter’s handwriting. I wish I could take credit for her ambition, but my daughter got there all by herself.
Still, I like to think that along the way, she picked up on the deep respect for government service that my wife and I harbor. So do your kids a favor: No matter how you feel about politics today, share with them something you love about your favorite president. Who knows? Maybe it’ll give us a future commander in chief.