What Kids are Thinking and Saying About Donald Trump
NOTE: This is from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon. I wrote it in English for a Japanese audience, and editors translated it into Japanese. It was published on Apr. 13, 2017 here.
Last December, my husband and I were in downtown Chicago with our 9-year old nephew and 8-year old niece when we passed by a towering building with a glittering glass façade. The gigantic sign on the 16th floor proudly declared: TRUMP.
Henry, who is in second grade, looked at the 98-story condo-hotel for a moment before he asked us, “Is that Donald Trump?” His voice dripped with contempt.
“I hate him,” he said. “He’s a baaad man.”
His outburst gave me pause. I didn’t know what to say. I agreed with him, but was it okay to admit that? As a family, we wanted him to be the kind of person who saw the best in others. If we encouraged this kind of talk, would we be stooping to the level of those we criticized? How would his parents — my husband’s brother and my sister-in-law — want us to respond?
Thankfully, his sister Eleanor saved us. “Henry, we’re not supposed to say things like that,” she said. “He’s not a bad man. He just made bad choices.”
I chuckled at the time, but in the months since then, as Trump makes one scary decision after another about immigration, security, the wall between Mexico, and the environment, I’ve been unable to forget about this exchange. When our very own president is hawkish and close-minded, how do parents and teachers teach children values like generosity, acceptance and inclusivity?
Having been educated in America for most of my life, I know from experience that most kids in this country are raised to be kind, giving and inclusive. By the time they reach high school, a well-rounded student is expected to not only have good grades but demonstrate leadership and a volunteer spirit. At Henry and Eleanor’s elementary school, teachers appoint students as “kindness ambassadors.” The overarching rule in their home is to “be kind, calm, polite and study.”
When Eleanor responded to Henry, it was clear that she was parroting something an adult had said. That person turned out to be my sister-in-law Sue. When I relayed the incident to her, she explained that it was her best attempt to straddle the line between not excusing Trump’s behavior and reinforcing the values that she believes in. Sue may have agreed with Henry, but she didn’t want him to talk disparagingly of anyone. “We want to treat people better,” she said, adding that she nevertheless found it disheartening to try and explain, for example, why a presidential candidate would want to build a wall to keep out people who were less fortunate.
Henry’s interest in politics was curious because he was so young. Sue thought her son recognized that Trump was a bully, no different than those in schoolyards. She said Henry had been particularly troubled by the footage of Donald Trump mocking a disabled New York Times reporter last fall. He made me wonder how other children were coping with the hostile politics around them.
I spoke to Tessa Rose-Scheeres, the ten-year old daughter of a friend who had led a kids’ version of a flash mob tribute to Hillary Clinton last November right before the elections. Flash mobs are groups of people who appear unannounced in a public space to perform and dance. Tessa had seen a video of one in New York, in which all the performers wore pantsuits like Clinton’s, so she planned a similar one in Berkeley.
Tessa’s mom had told me that her daughter had loved Hillary and had cried when she found out that Trump had won. For a while, she refused to acknowledge him as her president. Tessa told me she was trying to come to terms with it even as she continues to stand up for her beliefs. “Just because he’s our president doesn’t mean we have to agree with him,” she said. Before the elections, Tessa had proudly worn a pro-Clinton t-shirt that said, “I’m with her.” Recently she asked for one that said “#Resist.”
My journalist friend Fred Vogelstein told me that his family had a conversation with his 15-year old twins after Trump was elected president. “They were alarmed because of all things he said during the campaign, and the way their friends and teachers and parents reacted to all that,” he said. “On top of that, they were alarmed because it was obvious that we, their parents, were alarmed.”
Fred said he and his wife were “blunt but not hysterical.” They told the kids that they were going to be okay as a family because they were citizens, they have the financial resources to deal with any issue, and they were white. Even though the U.S. is much more diverse than many countries around the world, there was an idea known as “white privilege” referring to the societal benefits and preferential treatment that white people have that minorities don’t. Fred said he told his kids that all these advantages meant that they had an “obligation” to help people who weren’t so fortunate.
When I spoke his kids last week, they were impressively rational about the situation.
Back in November, Sam had been rattled enough by some of Trump’s comments against immigration that he worried that his 93-year old grandmother could get deported. Even though she was now a citizen, she had been a Holocaust refugee, who was forced to flee Berlin as a young Jewish girl.
Now, however, he was mostly just irritated. Sam was tired of the president using the press to get headlines and he was annoyed by political arguments that were either overly simplistic or overly complicated. He found the idea to build a wall between Mexico to keep out undocumented immigrants particularly ridiculous. “Don’t just build a wall that people could ultimately climb over, break, cut or go under,” he said.
His sister Beatrice spoke passionately about not letting emotions get the best of us. According to the U.S. Elections Project, more than 59 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, but that still meant that several millions of people didn’t vote, which has caused many to blame them for Clinton’s loss. Beatrice thought it was time to get move on.
“We have to quit playing the blame game,” she said, observing that people seemed to love blaming other people in times of distress. “We can’t focus on how angry we are. What are we going to do going forward?”
Beatrice said she worried about Trump’s unpredictability and the uncertain future, but she thought it was premature to panic.
She also disagreed with those who mocked Trump’s supporters.
“Everyone assumes that Trump’s supporters are the worst people and they’re horrible human beings, but they’re poor people who have gotten overlooked,” she said. “You need to recognize that they have the right to say things like you do.”
As she spoke, I realized how divisive our world had become. In my own social circles, my friends all identified as progressives. I can count the Trump supporters I know on one hand, and I didn’t know a single kid, who was pro-Trump. Beatrice told me that her school was very liberal, and that if anyone came out as pro-Trump, they would be “crucified.” She criticized so-called “social justice warriors,” who she defined as people who have such extreme views that they were unwilling to acknowledge other opinions.
I admired Beatrice’s wisdom and level-headedness but despaired of the wide gulf that was splitting this country apart. How were we ever going to come back together again? I guiltily thought about all the times my friends and I referred to Trump supporters as “those people.”
Beatrice wasn’t naïve about the potential havoc that this president could cause. She said she stood ready to speak out and do what she can. She cares particularly about the environment, and she plans to tap into her savings to make a donation to a worthy organization. In XX, she participated in a protest against the proposed construction of a massive oil pipeline in North Dakota that could pose a threat to the area’s clean water as well as a Native American reservation’s ancient burial site.
All three of them — Tessa, Beatrice and Sam — said they planned to vote when they turned 18. “If he destroys the country, by the time he destroys this country, I’ll be old enough to do something about it,” said Beatrice.
For the first time in the last few months, I felt optimistic. The next-generation of kids were getting an unforgettable civics lesson about what could happen if people stopped caring about politics and didn’t vote. They reassured me that we would eventually be okay. I couldn’t wait for them to become adults.