I waited until my seven-year-old was done with his breakfast to break the news. "Do you remember the election was yesterday?" I asked. "Yeah? Who won?" he said. I had to tell him: Donald Trump.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
We had chatted throughout the year about what a president is and why I believed Hillary was the best choice for the job. I talked him down when he would extrapolate those thoughts into declarations like, "Donald Trump is evil!" or, "Everything Donald Trump says is a lie!" I think it's important not to write people off as evil. And according to Politifact, only 70 per cent of Trump's fact-checked statements are outright lies.
But we had also talked about what a Muslim is, and that Trump was discriminating against Muslims even though we should all be nice to people no matter what their religion is. I shared my thoughts on why Trump's immigration positions were wrong, and why we need to accept refugees. I explained, not for the first time, about what racism is and that it's real today. Otherwise he might believe, like so many grownups do, that racism is a historical factoid only to be discussed in history class.
And so when I answered his question at breakfast, all of this must have come rushing back. He immediately scrunched up his eyes and opened his mouth and wailed heavenward.
The problem is, it's hard to tell how upset he really is. This is the same reaction he has when it's time to turn off TV for the night, or when he asks for oatmeal and I make him oatmeal but in the meantime he decides that he has, in fact, always hated oatmeal.
We continued our discussion for a few more minutes before it was time to get dressed for school. In that time, I did my best to explain what the election results meant for us, and gave him an opportunity to ask questions. He seemed satisfied with the answers, and pretty soon was chattering on an unrelated topic. I don't know when or whether he will break down crying again. But in case it helps, here is how I approached that talk.
What I Said
Reassuring someone without adding to their fears is a fine line to walk. These were my talking points; feel free to steal them.
- I will keep you safe always, to the absolute best of my ability. I didn't go into specifics about any fears; my mind was running wild and we don't yet have enough information to know exactly what damage Trump will do. But as his mother, I will always love and protect him with every ounce of strength I have.
- Now, more than ever, it is important for all people to look out for each other. I rehashed talking points from our previous discussions of kindness and bullying: We stand up for others and keep them safe. We even befriend bullies if we can. I have told my child it is his job, personally, to go out of his way to offer friendship to anyone who is having a hard day or who looks lonely.
- The president isn't the boss of everything. I reminded him there are lots of other people in the government who would have to go along with a bad idea before it can become a problem in the real world. For Australians, though US election does have global consequences, the Australian government is in charge of things, so the US president can't cause too many problems in Australia. And we can call and write to some of those people to ask them to make good decisions.
The right talking points will be different for every kid. Sometimes you'll realise that there is a topic you haven't broached with your child, or that they don't understand in the way you thought they do. Racism and xenophobia and sexism are hard things to talk about, but we do our children an injustice if we pretend they don't exist. I've done my best to talk about these topics at a level my child can understand, but I kind of forgot to explain how the US government works beyond the fact that there is a president. ("Did you know each country has its own president?" he asked me once, apparently in shock.)
What Kids Need to Hear
Kids who are old enough to understand the issue deserve to hear about it from a trusted source, like you. PBS Parents recommends bringing up difficult topics before kids ask, because they will probably hear about it somewhere else and start worrying — and not bother to tell you.
For young children, under age seven or so, Common Sense Media's advice on news stresses that kids mostly just need to know that they are safe. To avoid upsetting them, don't keep the news on (or talk about it) nonstop. Distract them, and yourself, with activities like watching a movie while hugging the bejeebers out of them.
For older kids, Common Sense Media recommends being available for conversation, but letting the child lead. You can ask them what they have heard, for example, but don't volunteer the worst news if you're not sure whether they will understand and be able to process that information. For example, I stopped just short of telling my son that some children have begun to worry they or their family members will be deported. If he hears that idea and wants to talk about it, I'm there for him. But he's young enough that facts and fears are not easily distinguishable. Children this age may misunderstand bad news and conclude that they, personally, are in immediate danger.
As kids get older, they need less help in understanding what's happened in the news, but they can still have a hard time processing that knowledge in healthy ways. Common Sense recommends asking teens what they have heard and what they think of it. At this age, they are developing political opinions, and you should hear them out before attempting to step in and correct them if you disagree. Their understanding of danger will be better than a younger child's, but may still be out of proportion.
Teachers may want to check out discussion questions like these from the New York Times aimed at starting a conversation about what a Trump win means for young people and for the world.
Back to the littlest ones, like my seven-year-old, try to build the conversation on discussions you've had before, or stories that your child can relate to. My kid wondered aloud if Trump might have a change of heart. "That's possible," I said. "His heart might grow like the Grinch."
I realised that analogy could go a bit farther: Even though the Whos were overseen by a grinch, they still showed their love for each other no matter what that old grinch said or did. That's the best advice I could give.