Can We Reassure Our Kids Monsters Don’t Exist When We Know They Do?

Author, activist, political pundit, and Dream Corps founder Van Jones brought me to tears on election night. Speaking on CNN about what we tell our children in the wake of Trump’s election, he said:

“It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us. You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bully.’ You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids, ‘Do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of ‘How do I explain this to my children?’”

Just hours earlier I had put my 13-year-old son to bed as he cried and told me he was afraid Trump would come to our house and hurt us. Trump was not yet the official president-elect, and he was already terrifying my child.

When he awoke at 6 a.m., my son anxiously asked me if Hillary won; when I said “no” he began to cry again, an anxious, worried cry. This time he was not crying for himself, but for other children. My son is white, and for months he has repeatedly expressed anguish over Mexican children, Muslim children, gay children, women; everyone Trump targeted throughout the campaign.

As parents, when our children are afraid, it is our instinct to calm them by saying, “don’t worry, it will be alright,” but I couldn’t say that to my children on Wednesday morning, because I was in shock and honestly didn’t feel like it would be okay. Instead, I hugged my son and told him to take his shower. Then I went to my 16-year-old daughter, who was also crying, buried in her bed. Her immediate reaction to the news was concern about women’s reproductive rights. She knows enough about Trump and his positions — if one can call them that — to realize her body is no longer hers alone. She didn’t get out of bed for the entire day.

As I walked past the bathroom to the kitchen, I heard my son in the shower sobbing loudly. Morning in America.

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When I was a child, I asked my Republican father to explain the difference between the two parties. He said that the GOP favored more strict fiscal policy and the Democrats tended to spend more on social programs. He didn’t demonize the Democrats, nor did he eviscerate the character of Jimmy Carter. The parties possessed starkly differing views on political, economic, and social values and priorities; their philosophies diverged greatly, but it wasn’t personal.

When I was a teenager, I remember disliking Reagan because everyone I knew disliked him, but I didn’t follow politics enough to know why I disliked him. This is in sharp contrast to my children’s political astuteness during this election, and their fears. I never feared Reagan, and I certainly didn’t worry that he would come to my house, or to the house of an immigrant classmate.

On Wednesday, millions of children in America woke up in fear; fear for themselves, their parents, their friends. Pundits talk about a paradigm shift, and indeed there has been a shift of gargantuan proportions. Where politics used to be a vague idea to children, that boring topic their parents discussed over dinner, politics is now the stuff of nightmares. Our future president has become the boogeyman.

When my children were little, I could calm their fear of monsters by opening the closet or turning on the light. Their father and I assured them that we would protect them, that nothing would hurt them. What do we say now? What do parents of color say now? How can we assure them when we ourselves are afraid and uncertain of the future?

We do our best. We gloss over the severity of the situation; we seek out the slivers of light and hope. We lie.

On Wednesday evening my son found Trump’s post-victory tweet:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/796315640307060738

To a 13-year-old’s eyes, the tweet felt hopeful and conciliatory. But I knew that Trump was talking about his constituents, the “forgotten” white men and women who have been left behind by progress, by inclusiveness, by a world in which Barack Obama is our president. The tweet made me sick, but I put a smile on my face and shook my head in agreement with my son.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad, maybe he’ll change,” my son said as he bounded away.

The day after Trump’s election I read about a group of children at the Royal Oak Middle School in Detroit, who chanted “build that wall” as a group of Latino students cried. That was Day One of the new era, the era where cruel bullies feel empowered — validated — because the biggest bully of them all was not punished for his behavior; he was rewarded with the presidency.

The incident in Michigan was not the only one of its kind. Students in Minnesota came to school on Wednesday to find “Fuck All Porch Monkeys,” “Whites Only,” and Trump’s name painted on the locker of a student of color. Students in York, Pennsylvania chanted “white power” as they marched through their high school.

Our president-elect has done nothing to dissuade this type of behavior. To the contrary, he has actively encouraged it at his rallies and on Twitter. Indeed, it can be argued that he won (the Electoral College, but not the popular vote) precisely because he gave voice to the worst of our society: the bigoted, racist, and misogynistic fanatics who have always walked among us, but whose numbers we naively assumed were dwindling. At the very least, we believed that they would be kept in check with a collective shaming and, yes, intolerance of such ideas, let alone actions.

As Jones said, most of us believed that we were making progress, and that our children were growing up in a better America than the one we grew up in. Most of us talked to our children about the importance of acceptance, decency, and above all, empathy. Many of us watched our children surpass our own ability to empathize with individuals or groups we may not have understood or identified with, or even known personally. My children took for granted that they lived in a world where it was safe to love whomever they wished, where diversity was celebrated, and where being different in any way, shape, or form was accepted.

But the students who committed these heinous acts were not raised that way. They were fed a twisted set of values at home and they ignored the lessons at school; they stewed in their own disdain for anyone who was not like them, anyone who challenged their deluded sense of superiority. And now they’ve been granted free reign by the highest position in our country — by the man who is said to represent a nation — to unleash the pent-up hate and ignorance that’s been passed down like cancer.

Many parents have comforted their children after a nightmare; we say, “monsters aren’t real.” The greatest challenge for parents in the new America is reassuring our children that monsters don’t exist — when we know that they really do.

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Lead Image: Flickr / Eric Vondy