Talking to kids about the election, post-election

10 Nov

Yesterday and today, I’ve had a lot of conversations with adults about the election of Donald Trump, and continuing–or in some cases, changing–the conversations we were having with kids and youth during the campaign.

What I’m hearing is that kids have questions, and not just factual questions: “How could this happen?” “Will we be deported?” and “Are we going to be OK?” are moral and emotional outcries, as much as they are about needing information.

What I’m finding useful for hearing and responding to these questions is Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton’s Courageous Conversation Compass.


Here’s how I use it:

I try to listen, observe and ask about where they’re coming from, where the election news is provoking them: head, heart, gut, or hands and feet (as in, let’s go!)

I try to respond to these four ways that they need to process this information:

  • What are the questions they have, and what are the facts they need to know (or we need to figure out) about what’s going to happen to the Affordable Care Act, whether immigrants Latino and Muslim are going to be rounded up or if we’re going to war? It’s OK if we don’t have all the answers right now. Let’s start with naming what we need or want to know. Here‘s a great example of a teacher doing this with high school students from NPR’s Here and Now. And while this is an example of talking to teenagers, I think this is scalable for young kids. My experience across schools during this campaign is that even preschool kids whose parents/guardians haven’t been talking with them about the election and other social and political issues know (or think they know) things about what’s going on in the country. If we’re worried about telling them too much too soon, all we have to do–if they haven’t already asked us–is ask them.
  • What is the misinformation our kids need to recognize? A tough truth: Trump will not be the first POTUS to say or do racist and sexist things. And Trump is not the first public figure (in politics, sports, entertainment) who is deeply flawed, despite our hopes that they’ll be a good role model for kids. As for the headlines, tweets and posts declaring: “Worst day in America 9/11. Second worst day in America, 11/9,” our kids need to know that the US has had worse days (here are a few, in no specific order): D-Day, the assassination of JFK, the assassination of MILK, Jr., the date FDR signed Executive Order 9066 to intern Japanese-American citizens, the many days that indigenous Native American people were forcibly removed from their lands in the 1800s, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing. It is, I believe, not just inaccurate but immoral to diminish some national tragedies, despite legitimate concerns and fears about Trump’s presidency.
  • Which brings us to responding to and caring for the emotional reactions to the election. Being present for children’s fear and pain can be next to intolerable. So we need to ask: What’s our intention? What do we hope for our children? That they’re never scared or in pain? This is understandable, but unlikely in human experience. That they gain the self-awareness, skills and resiliency to survive their own, and sometimes a shared, pain and fear? That they have models of how to own their pain and fear, and find strength in others? Despite our instincts to protect, we may not need to–and may not do our children a service by trying to–make things better that we can’t. Maybe that means taking some care of ourselves before we respond to the question: Are you scared? Just like on airplanes where in the event of an emergency, you need to put on your oxygen mask first in order to be able to help those around you.
  • Closely connected to how we feel, is what we believe. The election result feels just as right for some as it does wrong for others. And helping kids know that what we believe isn’t a universal truth can help all of us become what my colleague Orpheus Crutchfield has described as effective, not just right. Because sometimes our conviction of our own right(eous)ness hobbles our ability to be effective in advancing the personal, social and political “rights” that we believe in. So we can ask, not “What were those people thinking?! How could they vote for Trump?!” (with implied moral condemnation) but instead, “Why would people vote for Trump?” And I would push for as many possibilities as we can imagine: not just the first assumption we make. This is not just an academic exercise. In asking what’s possible, we open up our minds and our hearts to perspectives, experiences… and our own location (geographically, socially, and hierarchically–meaning how social privileges and disadvantages shape what we think and believe to be right/wrong, and good/bad). I can personally vouch for how considering possibilities when I have just jumped to a moral conclusion shifts me not just mentally, but emotionally, as well. It’s not that I have to let go of what I believe: it’s that I invite more context to consider what I believe–and why.
  • All of this, I think, is incomplete without action. Without harnessing what we wonder and think, feel and believe into some social action, we are sometimes left feeling helpless, when we’re really not. To be honest, we would all still have a lot of work to do to combat sexism, racism, classism and xenophobia if Clinton had been elected. And whichever candidate wins in an election, the citizens who support the losing candidate are still part of our United States, on November 9th and for the next four years. So this election was never about voting and putting our feet up. The question is: Given what we know, how we feel and what we believe, what do we do now? We may have to ask ourselves to consider our spheres of conviction and social responsibility: What do I need to do for me? For my communities? For them–the people I don’t consider “my people”? This last question can seduce us into paternalism-dressed-as-social-activism (with us crusading to show others the light–see: White Savior Industrial Complex), or can become a practice of cultural competency for social good: listening and learning from folks we don’t understand (to whom we may be as weird as they are to us), in order to figure out how to do something about the systemic inequalities that may seem to impact us differently, but that ultimately cost us all. Some of the options playing out: protests, #notmypresident, “respectful” concession, working towards a peaceful transition and getting informed about what issues may require us to stand up and speak out under this new administration, from climate change to trade to national security to reproductive rights. And I believe our options can include hybrids of respect and dissent because, as many have pointed out yesterday and today, that’s what our democracy is all about.

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