Within moments of the election results sinking in, a plaintive - and very beguiling - cry went up in the school pickup lines and Trader Joe parking lots of coastal suburbs... "What will we tell the children?"
When I started this blog some - eek - ten years ago, I was the Uncle of a lively 5 year old, and shortly after, an adorable newborn. Today, I am the uncle of a moody 14 year old, a rambunctious 9 year old, and an inquisitive 3 year old. And not until we landed in Israel (where the nephews now live) the week after the Access Hollywood tape, did it occur to me that talking about this election with kids was a dicey, uncomfortable affair.
These are the days of Mom Blogs and Helicopter parenting, and child rearing is never very far from the discussion of lefty politics these days. Generations X and Y have both moved into the marriage and family phase, and it's hardly surprising that, on white people, it's like thirtysomething brought to life. Sensitive dads trying to forge a new role for men as parents; modern moms balancing work and life interests of their own with raising thinking, active, aware kids. The campaign of Donald Trump was bound to roil these wholesome waters. It's uncomfortable, and surely, uncharted territory. Quick, find me a child rearing expert with a PhD to offer professional advice!
The notion of a protected, sacred childhood comes largely out of the Victorian era, a response to some of the horrors of the Industrial Age, and a companion to the enshrining of women's roles as keepers of the home and caretakers of the domestic sphere. It's primarily an upper middle class notion, aimed at women with successful, financially secure husbands, and quite possibly domestic help. And, naturally, it's these "traditional" notions that still haunt how we see children, and women, even as times, and cultural notions, shift. Feminism brought women into the workforce, up-ended the traditional family through divorce and sexual freedom, and led to the economic reality of 2 career couples. Through it all, we continue to carry notions of the protected childhood forward.
We do this even though we know that children see, hear and are exposed to all kinds of ideas and notions and images. We do this knowing that children are not, often, safe or protected. We do it knowing that children often chafe over it. And we wonder, these days, why children seem to struggle so with understanding when it's time to grow up.
It was my mother who pointed out to me that these notions of protecting children are probably not all that useful, that it's better probably to make sure they do understand how the world works, that it can be harsh or unpleasant, and help them to find the maturity they'll need to face it. Ata time when we are all so polarized and politically divided, it's children who may be insulated and isolated most from seeing, or hearing, others who are not like them, with parents who think differently, have different beliefs. At a time when we need greater understanding and more communication across our divides, our children are the reason we build the walls and look inward. That can't be good.
And given Donald Trump's candidacy and its success, it's worth remembering that not everyone is teaching kids diversity. Or tolerance. Or notions of consent. What do you tell children about how men talk about women and joke about taking women without consent? Well, God knows, that's as good a moment as any to teach boys that girls are not objects and girls that it's important to speak up and say no, and no one has a right to force themselves upon you.
This election did not "rob kids of their childhood." "Childhood" is a created construct, an often unrealistic fantasy and creates an unrealistic expectation parents can't ever meet. Wanting kids to have nurturing environments, to feel safe, to have room to grow and explore... these are great things to strive for. But kids, especially the children of wealth and privilege, also need to see and understand the world, and to go out into it. And know that it will not always be safe or welcoming. And, I would hope, that children of privilege realize that seeing beyond privilege is crucial and necessary - that we have a responsibility to our communities, to each other.
"What do we tell the children?" isn't ultimately a question about kids. It's a question that deflects the hard things we need to tell ourselves, the work we have to do, the ways we all let each other down. Donald Trump's foul language and hateful notions weren't an assault on children; they were an affront to us all. As I looked at my nephews, wondering what to say, and how to say it... i did wonder what I was trying to shield them from. And today, I think it's largely that I didn't want them to know, as I did, how horrible people can be. But they are. And if we're going to deal with that, we probably all need to grow up. At least a little.