Ever since Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech in the wee hours of November 9th, it's been a hot button topic on mommy message boards and at school pick-up: how should (or shouldn't) parents talk to kids about an election the nation is still coming to terms with?
As a mom of four small children, ages 4 to 9, I've been inundated with conflicting opinions from fellow parents, school communities, and the media, about what qualifies as the 'right' approach, the 'wrong' approach, and a number of in-between approaches.
Many of my mommy friends are embracing the ostrich approach - opting not to say anything at all, arguing that political talk will only scare or confuse kids, especially as things seem to grow messier by the day.
A part of me wants to be an ostrich, too. Our nation is in a state of flux. Our future--with respect to Cabinet picks, Supreme Court appointments, immigration issues and beyond - hangs in the balance. And on a global scale, we are vulnerable in ways that we haven't been since World War II. It's heavy stuff, even for grownups. So, who wouldn't want to shield the kids from all of it?
But my worry is that by saying nothing to the kids, by failing to talk with them about what's going on, we're adding fuel to the fire burning in our nation. For years, we've been operating on an 'ignore it and it'll go away' mentality - looking to social media memes and reality television and obsessions with spin classes and shopping excursions to take us away from the reality at hand, hoping that the bad things --the deepening racial and social divides --will magically sort themselves out, in their own time.
So, no, no ostrich approach for us. Wanna know how we're 'approaching' the election in our house? We're talking about it. Every day. With our 9 year old and 8 year old and 6 year old. We're even talking about it with our 4 year old.
We're talking about the election because the kids want to talk about it (they hear things on the school bus and come home armed with unsettling questions - not the least of which is 'Will there be a war?") And we're talking about it because I've come to realize as messy as these post-election days are to navigate and explain to the juicebox-drinking population, there are teachable moments that everyone - including us grownups - can take from these events.
To be clear: my husband and I are not stumping for or against any politician when we talk to the kids about what's happening, post-election. We're not trying to force-feed our little ones propaganda representing either 'side.' And we're certainly not trying to overwhelm them.
What we are doing is talking about the 'teachable moments' of the election in the hopes that they'll be better prepared to face a changing nation and in the hopes, too, that they'll be equipped to help bring it back together. Here, in no particular order, are the lessons we're taking from the election, and passing on to the kids:
Teachable Moment #1: We Need to Put on Our Listening Ears:
The first thing I told my children the morning after the election is that this election demonstrates we need to do a better job of listening. *All* of us. Old and young. Republicans and Democrats and Independents. In all 50 states.
I'm not sure when adults lost the ability to listen. Most preschool and elementary school teachers - my kids' included - talk at length about the importance of using listening ears in the classroom.
But somehow adults have lost the ability to listen - really listen - in recent years.
People are game to talk - and do so all the time on social media and comment boards, where they can state their opinions for all the world to see.
But listening? That's a lost art in the 21st Century. There used to be a give and take, a discourse of sorts, a willingness to agree to disagree. But now people just want to talk, talk, talk and never listen, listen, listen. And here's the worst part: if anyone fails to agree in 2016, they're publicly shamed, de-friended on social media.
So here's my message to the kids: put on your listening ears and keep them on. If we ever hope to come together as a united nation again, we need to listen.
The election was not so much won by Trump as it was lost by an entire nation that refused to listen to what others were thinking, that stopped trying to understand, or care about, the root of fellow citizens' concerns.
The Democrats famously mocked the Trump slogan 'Make America Great Again' - but in doing so, they failed to stop to listen to the desires and fears of a growing group of Americans in the middle of the U.S. who want a different America than the one they're experiencing, who have felt left behind economically and otherwise for more than a decade. The cost of living is soaring for families. Factories that closed years ago have not reopened and likely never will. For the first time in a pair of generations, young families are coming to terms with the grim reality that they will not live a life as prosperous as their parents or grandparents lived and that their own children will likely fare even worse. Their concerns, at the very least, should have been heard. But they weren't.
The Republicans were just as resistant to using their listening ears. They famously failed to listen to millions of Americans who pointed out that bigotry - against women, against immigrants, against minorities, against the gay population - is a reality within countless communities, within numerous police forces, and. if anything, is on the rise. That bigotry goes against the very fabric of our nation and is eroding the values that form our nation's foundation. The Right's mockery of these fears and charges of racism and sexism and xenophobia insulted and marginalized millions and sent the message, loudly and clearly, that some lives count more than others.
Speaking was not a problem in this election. The listening part most certainly was. The teachable moment for the children is clear: we need to open our ears, even if we don't like what's being said, to hear what, and more importantly *why*, things are being said. We don't have to agree with others about everything, or even most things, I tell the kids. But we need to listen in order to convey an element of respect we'd like others to afford us, and in order to begin the arduous process of finding *some* common ground. We'll never find that common ground if we continue to scream without listening. Screaming brings me to my next teachable moment to come out of this election:
Teachable Moment #2: We Need to Remember to Use Our Inside Voices
A need to listen does not at all suggest anyone should remain silent. Just as I believe the election teaches the kids an important lesson about listening, I also believe that this election is a reminder that we should speak up if we believe our needs are not being met.
But the teachable moment, here is that we should *speak* up, not *scream* out at the top of our lungs. Teachers tell young students in the classroom that they need to use their 'inside' voices in order to be heard. My message to the kids: they need to remember to use inside voices as adults as well.
The bulk of the rhetoric of the election was not executed in measured, thoughtful tones. Instead, it was delivered, by both sides, with shouts and yells and angry tweets and Facebook rants.
Inside voices convey respect and invite people to listen. Yells and insults encourage people to go in the other direction.
Time and again, more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar. There is something to be said for the person who can steadily and respectfully argue a point without raising his or her voice. Teachable message for the kids: if we don't use inside voices, all we're going to have is a nation of nonstop noise in which noone is heard.
Teachable Moment #3: It's Bad to be Sore Losers and Equally Bad to be Ungracious Winners
In an age in which everyone wins on soccer teams and Little League teams - when scores aren't kept and trophies are presented to all - winning and losing are often foreign concepts for little ones. But this election underscores our need to remind the kids - and to remind adults - that there are winners and losers in life, and both have an obligation to be gracious.
The Democrats were soundly defeated in the House, and the Senate, and in the race for the White House. Whining will not help matters.
The Republicans won the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote. Taunting the losing side will not help matters. It will only further divide a nation already deeply divided.
Just as teams after a game are expected to come to the field and shake hands, I am telling our kids that the election teaches us we need to do the same. Failing to do so will only further divide our nation and put us at greater risk of a major depression, or, worse, of a world war.
Teachable Moment #4: There's No Room at the Table for Debbie Downers
The final teachable lesson from the election that we're trying to convey to the kids is that there's no room at the table for Debbie Downers.
Throughout the election, there have been naysayers on both sides of the aisle at every turn - people more invested in squawking about why something won't work instead of coming up with or supporting tangible solutions that might stand a chance of proving effective. And in the wake of the election, there are more Debbie Downers than ever before. More people determined to find fault with things than to find silver linings, viable solutions.
To be clear: there's a lot of things going on that call for skepticism. But if that skepticism is not accompanied by a willingness - a commitment - to come up with a better solution that can be implemented, how much good is it doing?
If ever there is a time to put the negative feelings and Debbie Downer inclinations on a backburner, it's now. We don't need the naysayers. There's nothing special about them. Here's what I tell the kids we do need: the do-ers who are determined to make something good come out of something that feels, at best, decidedly topsy turvy.
Like so many other parents, I'm troubled by the realization of the deep divides rocking our nation. I'm concerned by a country swinging in two wildly different directions - and that seems, on so many levels, so angry. So very, very angry. I'd love so very much to ignore the tumult, shield my children from the mess, until it all goes away. But here's the thing: I don't know that it's going to go away.
One mommy friend recently told me that she's looking forward to things getting back to normal. I shook my head sadly and told her that I fear this may be the new normal.
Failing to gently tell my kids about what's going on in this nation of ours is, I fear, the equivalent of telling my children a lie. The onus on parents is to arm their children with the tools they'll need to navigate the world that is, not the world we want it to be.
No, if our nation has any hope of overcoming the fissures that are dividing us, we have to start equipping our children with the tools with which to mend fences, seek out some common ground. We need to teach them what lessons we can glean from the election of 2016 - that we need to better listen to one another, that we need to use inside voices, that we need to win and lose graciously, that we need to work to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem. Only then can we have any hope of making something good emerge from something so decidedly messy.
Mary Pflum Peterson is a multi-Emmy-award-winning TV journalist and the author of the memoir, White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters. She and her husband are raising their four young children in New York