Back in 2012, I covered the Presidential election for CafeMom and YouTube. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience — I traveled the country interviewing moms and reporting on issues that mattered most to them in the election. I moderated forums between the Republican presidential candidates and rooms full of mothers. I reported for Headline News and traveled frequently to Atlanta to talk about the ‘mom vote’ on that network. I covered both political conventions from CNN’s media platform, with a front row view of all the action. I visited the White House and President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago and I followed him on the campaign trail. I had as good of a behind-the-scenes view of the election as it gets.
But while that year was exhilarating and rich with experiences I’ll never forget, my ultimate takeaway from that time was that our political system is irrevocably, shamefully broken. I saw questionable ethics and dirty deals on both sides, as well as repeated, flagrant, calculated manipulation of the media and the public. I came away convinced that under our current system, there’s literally no way for a politician to become a viable presidential candidate without selling his or her soul in order to make it to the top. One of my co-workers spoke of wanting to take a bath in hand sanitizer when it was all said and done, and I think that’s a perfect way to describe how all of us felt after getting a good long look behind the curtain. Politics for us would never be the same.
That feeling stuck with me throughout this most recent election cycle — Living in the South, I have friends and family members whose beliefs fall all over the political spectrum and in the interest of being able to live my day-to-day life among them in relative peace, I have tried my best to keep my mouth shut and respect the opinions of those around me — or at least their right to voice them. But personally, I’ve been disgusted by the whole thing — by the debates and stump speeches filled with insults and name-calling and the political rallies that turned ugly as supporters and protesters tangled and even by my own Facebook feed, filled with arguments and hyperbole and rage and fear.
The worst part for me and, I know, for many of you, is that our children have watched all of this unfold. And they’ve been talking about it among themselves. (You should hear the rumors flying at my son’s elementary school.) Over the last year, my 9 and 12-year-old children have come to me with so many questions about the candidates and the election, and since I’m not aligned with any party, I decided to give them as much information as I could and let them form their own conclusions. I watched the debates with them. I talked to them about the issues and read them news reports. I explained to them why some of their family members and friends’ parents were Trump supporters and why others were vehemently against him, and why some family members and adults they knew loved Hillary Clinton and others didn’t trust her at all. I even signed up my 12-year-old for two very different academic tutorials this year in an effort to expose her to different beliefs and ways of thinking. One day a week, she attends a very conservative Christian school program, another day she goes to a decidedly liberal, secular tutorial in another part of town. She loves them both– and we spend a lot of time talking about how to be sensitive to others’ beliefs and opinions even as we form and learn to defend our own.
My 9-year-old son researched the candidates’ platforms online at school and proudly voted in the children’s election for Gary Johnson. My daughter enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton. As the results came in on election night, both of them cried. Watching them, I cried, too. The whole thing had been so very ugly. How could we possibly explain all the anger and division in our nation right now to our children? Over the last two days, I’ve seen so many mothers and fathers wrestling with these questions. And then it dawned on me that in this dark moment, we have an incredible opportunity.
Like him or loathe him, Donald Trump has our children’s undivided attention. Essentially because of their fascination with him, my kids now know all about primaries. They know how the electoral college works. They know about the branches of government and they’re learning about the system of checks and balances. They eagerly went with us to vote. They’re asking questions about immigration and healthcare and free trade. Did you care about any of this when you were 9 or 12 years old? I sure didn’t.
I’ve realized that right now, we have an amazing opportunity to raise a generation of Americans who are more knowledgeable about and involved in their government than any generation that’s come before them. With that in mind, I want to encourage you to talk to your kids about the news reports, the responses from world leaders, and the range of emotions your friends are showing right now on Facebook in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Talk to them about the Americans who feel fearful about our next president, and why they have reason to feel that way. Talk to them also about why so many Americans voted to elect Trump, and if you oppose him, take the time to extend that discussion beyond, “Because they’re all racist, xenophobic misogynists.” The reality is that our children are going to be living and working among people with all kinds of different viewpoints and opinions. They need an understanding of what both sides believe in and why in order to successfully navigate their way through it all. They need to learn to speak their opinions in a way that encourages others to listen rather than unfriend them on Facebook. And they need to learn how to work together and make compromises if they want to achieve true, lasting change. There’s never been a better time than now to help them start figuring this out.
Although my instinct at this moment is to cancel our newspaper and cable subscriptions and put my head in the sand for the next four years, instead we are going to watch the news every morning before school. We are going to read the newspapers. We are going to discuss how we feel about what’s going on. We are going to consider the opinions of both our liberal and conservative friends and really think about why they might feel the way they do. We are going to try and figure out how to bring the virtues we believe in– love, compassion, and integrity– back to a nation that right now seems to be in short supply of all three.
Some of us are raising future presidents, future Supreme Court justices, future lawmakers– All of us are raising future voters. Let’s use this dark and confusing time in our history to help them start figuring out now how not to repeat it.
Header image via Will C. Fry/Flickr Creative Commons