Parenting in the Age of Donald Trump
The voice yelling to me from the other room was strained with worry: “Can I show you something?” A second later, my fiancé’s teenage daughter, Tess, held her iPhone out for me to read. All I could see at first were Facebook posts. As the warm July morning light streamed in through the window, I smiled a little as she passed me the phone, figuring it was probably a social hiccup I might be able to help with. I was not prepared for what awaited me.
Scrolling through the posts, my mind scrambled to keep up with my eyes. A handful of white Wellesley High School students had set up a private Facebook group and were threatening to “lynch” students of color. The rhetoric included racial epithets claiming minorities are “taking our jobs” and stating “I’m tryin to genocide their ass,” as well as suggesting Donald Trump “should deport [a classmate] back to Mexico.” Screen shots of the page went viral. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of parents discovered it, the vast majority equally stunned and horrified. School officials’ phones rang off the hook. Meetings were called, committees were formed, and calls for expulsions were registered. Everything from the school’s education and anti-bullying programs to the effectiveness of its 50-year-old Metco program was called into question. Many students were disgusted. Meanwhile, Tess and her 16-year-old brother, Davis, told me, some students and parents insisted the kids “were just kidding”—which made those who were already upset even more distraught. In short, the normally reserved town of Wellesley went ape shit. Including me.
Around the same time, I found it increasingly difficult to restrain myself on social media. When people posting about the presidential election called their candidate’s opposition nasty names, I forcefully replied. When some of those people then called me equally juvenile names for expressing myself, it was all I could do not to answer in kind. All of this, I’m embarrassed to say, was in clear view of me and my fiancé’s four children, ages 10 to 19.
Fast-forward to today. All throughout Massachusetts—as well as the rest of the nation—a sense of misplaced anger, frustration, and uncertainty is in the air like the winter flu. Leading up to the election, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey created a hotline for people to report hate crimes, which were on the rise. In just a single week following Donald Trump’s election, Healey’s office fielded more than 400 reported incidents of bullying, vandalism, and threats based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Someone spray-painted swastikas on a black student’s garage in Arlington. The words “Go home” were keyed into a Puerto Rican couple’s car in West Springfield. Neighborhoods in Milford were strewn with the Ku Klux Klan’s official newspaper. A student bathroom at Attleboro High was defaced with white-supremacist graffiti.
In many ways, it’s hard not to see Trump’s political ascendance as a string of successful bullying incidents: He insisted that our first black president had not been born in the U.S.; he lobbed insults at people, ranging from his “Little Marco” Rubio wisecrack to calling a Latina Miss Universe “Miss Housekeeping”; he bragged about sexually assaulting women and then brushed it off as “locker room talk.”
As a result, it often feels like we’re all back in the high school locker room—Trump’s locker room, to be exact, the one where the bullies drag us down to their level and win. Even if you don’t believe that’s true, it’s still hard not to recognize the change that’s underfoot. As the Facebook incident in Wellesley and my own online outbursts have shown, Trump’s politics and behavior are rapidly bleeding into how we treat one other on a daily level, challenging our social and moral codes of conduct. As people. And as parents.
Over the past couple of months, much has been written on the topic of how to parent after this election. After all, our new president has said and done things that many of our kids would be suspended—even expelled—for doing. I know that I need to help my children feel secure. But how can I be a good parent when I feel just as anxious as they do?
Our family doesn’t exactly lack for what are called “teachable moments.” With four kids in four different developmental stages (ranging from pretween to tween to teen to young adult), each of them has some sort of Shakespearian-level drama going on at any given moment, and the best I can hope for is that these flare-ups don’t all occur at exactly the same time. Most of their social conundrums are about figuring out how to relate to other people with whom they don’t agree. But this was different. I was in over my head and needed help.
Was the answer to “go high” in the face of low behavior, per Michelle Obama’s advice? The best person to ask seemed to be someone with firsthand experience: Gail Musikavanhu, the mother of one of the minority students at Wellesley High who was targeted by the racist posts on Facebook. She told me that she and her husband decided they wanted to take a forgiving and educational approach to the situation rather than promote an unhealthy “us versus them” dynamic in front of their or anyone else’s children. For her, it’s all about leading by example. When Musikavanhu had the chance to sit down with one of the students who’d threatened to “lynch” her son and explain her approach, she said, “He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, but how are you going to change my heart?’ That really shook me. I said, ‘Maybe I can’t, but I want to show what is in my heart as an example.’”