When another son went off to college this past summer, I made it clear that I required four things of him:
1. Eat vegetables
2. Get good grades
3. Make friends
4. Register to vote
My son is going to school in Pennsylvania, so that last requirement was particularly important, even if he does think battleground state has something to do with Gettysburg, or maybe the Steelers and the Eagles.
In the suburban town where my son grew up, there is a charming tradition in which the elementary-school kids get to cast ballots alongside their parents whenever the school budget is up for a vote. The stakes of the two electoral contests seem to be equally weighty: an approved school budget vs. reduced investment in the next generation’s education; pajama day vs. sports day vs. game day. None of the children seem to care that they don’t get a bona fide voting booth like the adults do. After all, there is a cookie tray. And stickers!
Spoiler alert to all parents of young kids: regularly voting for the right to wear pajamas to school does not appear to prepare children to vote for President of the United States. My relationship with my teenage son consists mostly of my sending him overly long texts and his responding with one-word answers, occasionally accompanied by a friendly emoji if he remembers that I am partly responsible for his existence, not to mention paying for his meal plan. After we dropped him off at school in August, I spent the trip home text-hectoring him about those four things he needed to do. Miracle of miracles–and yes, maybe just to get me off his back–he actually registered to vote. Sometimes it is remarkably easy to feel like you have been a good parent.
Then, in mid-October, the Letter arrived. It was from the Pennsylvania board of elections, addressed to my son but sent to our home address. I texted to say the Letter had come. Did he want me to open it? “Yes,” he responded. “What’s the magic word?” I asked. “Rumpelstiltskin,” he replied.
Because he never actually said “please,” and because he still doesn’t know that you should never engage in a battle of wills with an Aries mom, I didn’t open the Letter until a few days later. And then: crisis! The personal information he had provided in his voter registration had an error. The good news is that he doesn’t carry his Social Security card in his wallet, since we have nagged him for years about that too. The bad news? It seems the future of our country rests in the hands of DJ Khaled fans who eat french fries with every meal and memorize their Social Security numbers incorrectly. I was in a near panic. My son was shrugging, by text.
Why is it so hard to make 18-year-old boys care about things that matter? I could have five more sons and live to be 200 and never know the answer to that question. (See: foot odor; responding to emails; Mom when she yells.) But the more I thought about my son’s lack of urgency, the more it began to make a kind of sad sense. Young people usually have lower voter turnout than their parents or grandparents anyway. And now, for my son and his friends, their political coming-of-age coincides with a time when one of the major-party candidates looks and sounds like what you would get if you mixed Survivor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Duck Dynasty and baked it in a convection oven at the Playboy Mansion for 70 years. What is reality, and what is reality TV? I actually worked on Capitol Hill, and I can’t tell. How is Mr. I Don’t Know My Social Security Number supposed to be sophisticated enough to figure it out?
The whole thing has become so meta–reality TV becomes real life, and vice versa–that it’s no surprise kids my son’s age regard politics with ironic detachment. In fact, we’ll be lucky if anyone in his generation ever runs for office. When is the last time you met someone under the age of 25 who wanted to go into politics? I’m not sure I ever have. Future food bloggers, movie directors and tech billionaires are a dime a dozen. Future members of Congress? Uh, no.
This year, more than ever, it’s been hard to convince my children that they need to take politics seriously, when it all seems so farcical. But I’m clinging to this little bit of hope: my youngest son, who is 9, insisted on tuning in to every presidential debate. Whether he cares about the issues or just wants to witness the spectacle, I don’t know. But at least he’s paying attention.
Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom
This appears in the October 24, 2016 issue of TIME.