What Do We Tell The Children?

A number of people have asked me privately what we should tell our children about the fact that Donald Trump is now the president-elect. This question seems to presuppose that children are waiting for us to explain something. They’re not. As difficult as it might be for some of us to understand, children really care very little about politics. Any attempt you make to provide an “explanation” for the outcome of an election, beyond the mere fact that more people voted for X than for Y, is an attempt to indoctrinate your kids. Don’t do that.

In a recent article in The New York Post, Karol Markcowicz writes:
Dr. Jonathan Friedman, director of psychology with The COR Group, advises, “Parents should make every effort to shield their children from the vitriol and mudslinging of politics, particularly during a campaign as divisive, salacious and ugly as this one has been.”

Amazing that this has to be said.

It’s hard to totally shield our kids from politics’ ugly side, but we certainly shouldn’t be the one emphasizing it to them to make our own political point. Friedman says “rather than communicating harshly about those with whom they may vehemently disagree, they can instead emphasize the importance of everyone having a right to express their opinion through their vote, and how sacred this right is to us all.”
Children need to be reassured and protected. If you’re wondering what to say to reassure them and protect them from the current political climate, then maybe you need to ask yourself why your children are already so invested in politics in the first place.

This is a particularly important message for those friends of mine who are teachers as well as parents. As teachers, we are entrusting you to present school curricula to our children. That’s it. We don’t need you to be friends with them. We don’t need you to provide them with a moral framework (that’s our job as parents). We certainly don’t need you to arbitrate the outcome of an election. We don’t need you to go out of your way to explain something to them just because they asked. A mature person in an influential teaching role ought to be able to say, “Most of us adults struggle to find rationality in politics; it is understandable that you kids are having a hard time. The truth is, you may never figure it out for as long as you live. The best we can do is wait and see what happens. If you have more questions, I encourage you to talk this over with your parents.”

Children don’t think the way adults do. To us, an election is about competing ideologies. We think that people voted for Trump because those people are racist idiots. Or we think people voted for Trump because the liberal elites aren’t listening to them. Or we think that Wikileaks and the FBI engaged in a conspiracy to topple Clinton. This is nuts. Ask yourself: do you really want your child to think like that? They are living comparatively idyllic lives. True, many of them will have to face discrimination, and many of them are dealing with it now. Do you really think you’ll be able to explain the eons-old faults of the human condition to them in the context of a single US presidential election? Please…

I don’t think people are truly looking for an explanation to give to the children. I think they are looking for an explanation to give to themselves. That’s perfectly understandable, but it’s important to remember that, and to avoid drawing our children into our own personal existential crises. That causes harm to them. They deserve better from us. We have to think through the complexities of the world on our own time, away from our children. Anything less puts them at risk.

The existential considerations we ought to be thinking about are incredibly important. I encourage everyone to please think them through. But if you’re not there, if you’re still struggling to make sense of it all, what makes you qualified to deliver a message about world politics to impressionable young children?

What should we tell our children? We should tell them, “I love you. Please don’t worry too much about these things. Please treat other people with kindness and respect. Please go outside and have some fun.”

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