This would be easier if my kids were younger.
Yes, little kids are perceptive, but it’s possible to paste a smile on your face for them when necessary. You can watch animated movies with them, read picture books and keep your conversation G-rated. You don’t talk about the state of the country or the world because they’re too young to understand that kind of thing, anyway. They know Elsa wants to set her powers free and superheroes go after bad guys. If they do stumble onto anything real in the news, you comfort them, maybe give them cookies as a distraction. Paint the world with illusory bright colors and assure the children the good guys will prevail.
Simplify, reassure, protect. That’s a parent’s job when it comes to the very young.
Adolescents offer a more complex challenge. They are caught in the space between child and adult, and as any parent of an adolescent knows, you can encounter both the small child and the mature adult in the same kid inside of sixty seconds. Anytime you think you’ve figured out which version of your kid will appear in response to any given stimuli, that same kid will prove you wrong. The only constant is that you’ve got to be prepared for anything at any moment. The world is confusing to us adults and we’ve been living in it for decades. It can be exponentially more befuddling to our adolescent kids.
So for those of us presently deeply distressed about the state of our nation and our world: how much of that do we let our older kids see, and how do we balance what we show them with parental reassurance aimed at reassuring the more childish aspects of who they are?
I fear for our 220-year-old democracy as never before. I follow the news closely and I speak my views in my house. This is deliberate: I want my kids to understand the historic rarity that is our democratic republic and why it’s important to fight to keep it. I want them to learn civic engagement. I want them to understand empathy, equality, kindness and standing up for their own rights as well as the rights of others.
I believe I’m doing a good job of inculcating this knowledge and these values in my adolescent kids. Unfortunately, I fear I’m doing a poor job of providing them with any corresponding reassurance at this precarious time.
When we witness the President-elect’s latest Twitter tantrum, I see my kids’ respect for the leader of our republic decline before my eyes. As we digest each new story about oligarchic-level corruption or cabinet appointees opposed to their departments’ missions and I explain another civics lesson to my kids, I watch my kids become more cynical. Every time I talk to my son and daughter about any specific incident of blatant racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, Islamophobism, homophobism, etc., I feel like yes, I’m telling them the truth. But I also feel like I’m breaking their hearts.
How can I offer my fifteen-year-old reassurance that the country he’s going to live in as an adult will be just fine when I don’t believe that’s necessarily the case? He’ll be voting in the next presidential election; isn’t it his right to know the truth? What about my younger, more sensitive eleven-year-old? Should I try to hide from her that bullying has been rewarded, that racism is more open, that anti-Semitism is on the rise? No, both kids have to be prepared, especially since both are Jewish and one is Asian. In any event, I respect my kids too much to lie to them. But maybe they don’t need to know everything I know. Perhaps I don’t need to share with my kids everything I see.
This is the part of the post where I should reveal the solution to the problem. But I haven’t got a magic answer here. I’m truly struggling with this dilemma, recognizing that I need to do better than I am doing. So here are a few ideas I’ve considered to bring some positivity into a dark time for kids in a civically engaged household. I welcome your constructive suggestions below.
- Things may be scary out there, but our family is as strong as ever. This doesn’t change, no matter what goes on in the nation or the world. We still love each other and sometimes irritate each other. We encourage each other and I tell you to put your dishes in the dishwasher. Get your homework done and “Jack” won’t be hugged in public, and “Emmie” is difficult to wake up and Jack ate twelve pancakes for dinner, and Emmie has ballet and jazz today and Sunday is pizza and Star Trek night and the dog chases the cats and we still do all of our family things. None of that changes.
- You can make a difference. If you don’t like the way things are going, get involved and try to change things. I’m trying to do this on several levels, both because it’s what I believe and because I want my kids to see me doing more than complain.
- You have an obligation to become educated about how your world works. The one positive aspect to what’s going on in this country right now is that it serves as an example of what can happen when people don’t understand how their government works. There is a desperate need for better civics education in America. I only have responsibility for two young people at the moment, but I’m determined that they will understand more than basic concepts about their community, country and world by the time they leave home.
- Take a break. We just got back from a much-needed vacation. We planned this vacation out of the country long before Trump was elected president, but the timing couldn’t have been better. The only people we ran into who discussed U.S. politics were other Americans. For a little over a week, we escaped the simmering pot of anger and distress. It helped a lot. This won’t happen again anytime in the foreseeable future, but I will be looking for other ways to take smaller breaks closer to home.
- Find little things that make you smile. For example: if you and your family are Hamilton fans like we are, you know who this is and why this clip is so great.
There, that ninety seconds of happiness felt great, didn’t it?
Got any ideas for how to contribute to a positive atmosphere for older kids when you don’t feel positive about the world? I’d love to hear them, but please, let’s keep the discussion respectful and reasonable.