Parenting in the Age of Donald Trump
White supremacy wasn’t something I thought I’d have to talk to my kids about. Then Trump got elected.
Not that Musikavanhu isn’t critical of the people involved; she just chooses to aim it at the parents rather than their children. “Even some of my friends tried to console me by brushing it off and saying the kids weren’t serious,” she says. “But that was worse. Because that means they don’t understand how very serious those things are to other people.”
As I listened, the enormity of what she said sank in. But what can you do about that? Fostering empathy can be a key to preventing children from viewing the world as bad guys and good guys, or Trump supporters versus some rebel force. Richard Weissbourd, director of the Human Development and Psychology master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Parents We Mean to Be, says parents need to encourage compassion and ask children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “You don’t use words like ‘lynching’ and ‘genocide’ as threats if you have enough empathy to understand what they mean on a human level,” Weissbourd says. What’s more, he adds, if you can imagine yourself or your family suffering as a result of hate speech or bullying, it becomes much harder to justify using that kind of language.
Another person I turned to for advice had been giving my kids moral instruction since they were babies: childhood education expert Nancy Traversy, who runs the Barefoot Books publishing company in Cambridge. Both of my two younger children grew up reading the books Traversy publishes: all stories about understanding another point of view. They set forth scenarios intended to help kids practice putting themselves in someone else’s shoes—trying to see your adversary as a human instead of an enemy—even when (or maybe especially when) that person is the bully. Now more than ever, she sees the need for compassion and is trying to help parents pass useful tools on to their children. Her latest campaign, which promotes empathy in our kids, started not long after Trump’s victory. “In an odd way,” she tells me, “the Trump presidency will catalyze a good conversation: How do we show our children different beliefs and abilities through books, movies, in different mediums? How do we show them our common humanity? That’s what parents are talking about right now.”
At the same time, experts remind me, it’s essential for parents to let kids know that while understanding different points of view is important, Mom and Dad or whomever the role model may be have their own sets of values that might not jibe with Trump’s or those of his more-extreme supporters. Again, it comes down to leading by example. David Lussier, superintendent of Wellesley Public Schools, tells me, “Now that Trump is elected, what’s happening is a referendum on our values as a nation and a community. So what’s the role of schools here?” he asks. “We have to be nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have values. There’s still right and wrong. Hate crimes are happening here and all over. Our kids and our staff have been deeply troubled. We can’t be silent. We can’t enter into moral relativism; every idea doesn’t need to get equal weight for the sake of parity. If you’re talking about white nationalism, we need to draw a line in the sand and say it’s not okay.”
Now a confession: before and after the election, I personally found it difficult to always go high. I’d hunker down in the living room with my laptop and jump into the social media fray, offering my unvarnished opinions. I found myself in the unexpected position of hitting back at people who took personal swipes at me for my views as I struggled to make sense of this new political climate. It felt satisfying to tell them off, and somehow—for the first time in my life—I was on the brink of becoming an online bully. It is, after all, “a lot easier to call someone names and say terrible things to them when you’re typing it into a keyboard instead of looking at the person,” Lussier observes. The trick, though, is finding a way to express your own values without shutting the conversation down or turning into a ruffian—in my case: accidentally jarring my kids and making them feel less secure in the process. I had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to do better.
Once I’d talked to Musikavanhu, Lussier, and others, I sat down with my kids after the election to get us all back on track. It wasn’t the easiest conversation I’ve ever had. We talked about some of the things that had gotten me riled up on social media, including Trump’s comments that he’d groped women without their permission. I doubled down with my daughters and sons to make it clear that their bodies are their own—just as other people’s bodies are their own—and let them know that if they ever witness sexual assault, it isn’t just “locker room talk.” It’s serious, and it’s something they need to report to me or school officials at once. I wanted them to know there is a way for them to feel empowered and speak up without acting like bullies.
I told my two older children that I wanted them to keep me in the loop about what they’d read on social media and heard at school, and that I wanted to be involved to help them better make sense of it all. I even bit the bullet and assured all of my kids that those who agree with Trump—a few beloved family members included—are not all hateful people. This, I said, was the empathy and understanding I get so frustrated with bullies for not having, so the more we can practice it ourselves, the better.
Most important, I let my children know that my anger and frustration had never been about them, and that I was going to spend less time engaging in social-media mudslinging, and a lot more time listening to them instead. As Musikavanhu had told me, “I certainly don’t want my kids speaking like Trump. But our deeds as parents say more to our kids than Trump ever will.” For most parents, including me, that’s a great place to start.