This past summer, my husband, two sons, and I were in the car headed to a play. The radio was tuned to a program discussing Donald Trump’s position – if you can call it that – on Muslims being banned from entering the country.
The host went on to reiterate the Republican presidential nominee’s “positions” on foreign policy, national defense spending, marriage equality, bathroom access laws in schools, U.S.-Mexico border security, and the fundamental humanity of women. (Trump’s sexual assault audiotapes had not yet been leaked by the Washington Post, so we were, for the time being, spared that abomination.)
Infuriated, my husband switched off the radio and said something about feeling sick to his stomach. This caught our younger son’s attention. He asked, “Are you carsick, Dadda?”
“No, bud, I’m upset.”
“Why are you upset?”
“I’m upset because Donald Trump is not a nice man. He’s a very mean person.”
“How is he mean?” asked our son.
We looked at each other, not sure how to translate our anger and disgust into words that would be honest but not overly upsetting for a four-year-old.
Our eight-year-old responded before we could: “He doesn’t think about other people…about what it’s like to be someone different from him.”
“Well put, buddy,” I said, wishing that this were Trump’s only transgression.
The car fell silent as we s-curved up the road except for the sound of a river through the open windows tumbling down toward the valley behind us. Then our four-year-old said, “He wants to be our President, right?”
“That is the situation we are in, yes.” Then I explained a little bit about the two party system and how Democrats have chosen Hillary Clinton to be the leader of our country and Republicans have chosen Donald Trump.
His gravelly little voice became anxious. “How could someone who is really mean get chosen to lead our country?”
There are so many possible responses to this question and yet, when asked by a child, it becomes abundantly clear how none of them hold any water. Not a drop.
I looked at my husband again as he gripped the wheel, hugging a turn. I could see that he was opting out of this one, concerned he might say something too extreme or overloaded for the heart of a child whose concept of meanness is couched in the relative safe zone of preschools and playgrounds.
Words or no words, my husband’s whole bearing betrayed his indignation and profound sadness, if that pairing is even possible. I took a deep breath.
“That’s a really good question, kiddo,” I said finally. “I wish I had a good answer for you.”
I’m not sure why this came as a surprise, but I startled when he shouted, “I don’t want someone mean to be our president!!”
I reached back to hold his tiny hand. “Hey now, it’s going to be alright.”
“How can it be alright if someone mean gets to be president?” He was really upset now, squirming in his car seat, his mouth down-turning the way it does when he’s about to cry.
“He wouldn’t be president forever,” offered our eight-year-old, gently. “Just four years, and then we could pick someone else.”
“Or,” said my husband, “enough people will see that he doesn’t really care about them and not vote for him in the first place.”
Our four-year-old sniffed and frowned at his lap, bending and straightening each of my fingers one by one. “When do I get to bote?” he asked.
“You mean vote,” corrected his brother.
“That’s what I said!”
“When you’re 18.”
I could hear my eldest doing the math under his breath behind me. “Not until 14 years from now,” he said to his brother. “But I can vote in 10 years, and I’ll vote for the person you like the most.”
So this is what’s keeping me up at night. How do we teach the importance of kindness, humility, empathy, and integrity to our children when one of the richest and most powerful people currently (maddeningly, ruthlessly) dominating the headlines possesses none of these qualities?
I’m sure research has been done on the topic. I’m going to dig that research up and study it even more religiously than I studied "The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide…" when my boys were still sorting out the difference between night and day.
Until then, here are five strategies that have worked for me generally, but especially now as we contemplate, as David Brooks put it, "The Governing Cancer of our Time."
Tell your children stories about people like Gandhi and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr., how they stood for civil rights and the eradication of cruelty and injustice. Barack Obama’s "Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters" is a great conversation-starter picture book that celebrates the diversity and resilience of Americans whose path-breaking ideals have shaped our country irreversibly.
Invite your children to share stories of times when they felt frightened, alone, marginalized, or hurt. They’ll realize they, too, have insights into big universal questions that affect all kinds of people. This helps kids feel connected and more aware of their responsibility to one another. Barbara McClintock’s beautifully illustrated "Animal Fables from Aesop" revitalizes the familiar teachings and sparks great Halloween costume ideas as well.
Expose your children to difference of all kinds – cultural, racial, ethnic, geographical, sexual, economic, spiritual, and so on. They’re incredibly open in this regard and already way ahead of you, namely because they’re behind you in years and have not yet absorbed the biases that consciously and unconsciously shape our “adult” views. So get out there. Immersive travel helps. So does volunteering at camps for survivors of traumatic brain injury. So does visiting a local food shelf.
Let your children witness you being compassionate toward others. Some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother interact with deli workers and bank clerks and custodians and gas station attendants and really whomever she came across. She smiled at everyone and called each person by name.
If she didn’t know their name, she would ask it and remember it for next time. Her benevolence was indiscriminate and she always assumed the best of others. Most often they responded in kind. Whenever I meet people who know my mother, they remark on her undeniable goodness. As a child, her gifts made me feel safe and happy. As a woman, they make me feel better about being alive.
Love your children well. When kids feel loved, they build the confidence to love in return. As they grow and their perception of and contributions to society grow with them, that native love will spread beyond family and friends to humanity as a whole. They will understand that love is in fact a force that can make the world a better place. A cliché, but a deserved one.
Election Day is less than a month away. As a mom of children who have only known Barack Obama as America’s commander in chief, I hold onto the belief that We the People will not regress into the politics of panic, exploitation, and aggressive, nationalistic isolationism. I’m going to take my kids to the voting booth. I’m going to show them how to have a voice and use it.
Then we’ll step outside into a brisk fall day, maybe go to an orchard and climb some trees. And while biting into the bright, tart fruit, I’m going to reassure my sons that, even if meanness prevails this time, it won’t last long because too many people will get hurt and begin to understand and demand another way.
I’ll tell them things have not always been as they are and that they won’t stay this way either. I’ll say we are fortunate to live as we do, freely and without fear, but that this kind of life doesn’t happen automatically. I’ll talk to them about all the strong, caring, dedicated people working hard to make things better so that when they get to vote and maybe become parents, a different sort of story can be told.
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